Saturday, July 16, 2016


Chapter Two

The farm where I live is on Yellow Creek Road five miles from town. My housemates are hippies. We take college classes in the fall and winter. In summer, we grow our own vegetables, and sell the eggs our hens lay.

I’m the only one in the group with a regular job.

Rent is cheap because we repair what needs to be repaired, and we take care of the animals. If we move out, the animals would go the bigger Cheney farm, 191 acres of crops and dairy cows. The farm lies behind our little sanctuary.

Vonnie’s nephew Dennis and his American Indian wife Dancing Bear run the big farm. Would they buy Yvonne’s five acres if she wanted to sell? I suspected they would. Vonnie might even give it to them.

Sue, one of my roommates met me at the door. “I started packing your things, Mrs. Cheney said she wanted you back in town ASAP.”

Sue wore a blue granny dress, flowers in her hair and a peace sign necklace. I was in black slacks and a white t-shirt , the uniform of an Almasy House maid.

“If I missed anything, I can bring it to town when I do an egg run,” she said.

“Don’t worry about it; I’m probably going to need to get away. Any excuse will do.”

I went into my bedroom. Two suitcases were packed. I’d have to shop for some dresses if I was going to be managing the house. But I would probably want my black slacks and t-shirts too.

I saw the old doll lying on the dresser.

“Do you want to bring that old thing with you?” Sue asked. She was pointing at Dorothy’s doll, Penny.

I put the doll on top of my suitcase. “I’m keeping it for a friend,” I told her. I knew I shouldn’t keep the doll, or if I did I should rename it. How freaky is it to have a doll with the same name as yours?

Buried deep in my closet is a huge cardboard box. This is my box of treasures. I picked up the box, and despite knowing I had to get back to town soon I sorted the contents.

“A Date With the Everly Brothers” phonograph LP.

“Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” by Marty Robbins. LP. (Somebody left these recordings at the Chaney Farm. He wasn’t coming back. So the records are mine.

A tube of lipstick, an umbrella and sunglasses shoplifted from a dime store when I was eleven or twelve.

About a dozen old letters. These are the good ones. The boring letters I toss away or put back.

A bundle of pages that Elaine Mynter, the Yorkie cook, put out by the curb one day in 1960 or 1961.

A notebook I took from Mary Mynter Smith’s closet. There were lots of valuable things in her closet that I could have taken. I just took the old notebook.

Some index cards. The museum where I volunteer is putting all the county records of births, weddings and deaths on index cards. Sometimes I make a copy of the index cards for me. Sometimes I copy the information and take it. There are some secrets this town isn’t ready for.

The county won’t notice them missing.

The phone rang. Sue answered it and I could hear her making excuses.

“Mrs. Cheney says she needs you back right away.”

We carried the box, the suitcases and doll to my car. I noticed the cat carrier sitting on the porch.

“Where’s my cat?” I asked after we had the suitcases in the trunk.

“You could leave Thaddeus here.”

“I want him with me. I had better grab his cat food and litter too.” I didn’t have enough money to buy too many extras. I could always hit Vonnie up for extra money to buy cat food and litter, but I preferred go prepared.

We dragged the sacks of litter and food to the car and then went back to the house. Thaddeus sat in the middle of the living room. “I don’t think he wants to leave,” Sue said.

“He won’t mind it after we’re there. Lisa has a nice apartment.”

“You’ve been in her apartment?” Why was Sue so surprised?

“Several times,“ I told her.

“You’re living in a crazy lady’s apartment, with her cat and how many ghosts? If you’re crazy enough to move to Almasy House, at least leave your cat here. I hear Lisa’s cat is as crazy as she is.”

“We’ll be okay. Remember, we aren’t living in Almasy House. We’re across the parking lot. No ghosts there. At least none that I know of.”

“What if Lisa gets out of jail and doesn’t know you’re staying there and she - I don’t know - shoots you?”

“We’ll be safe,” I assured her.

“The charge is murder,“ Sue said.

“Negligent homicide,“ I corrected her. “She hasn’t been convicted yet.”

“YET,” Sue emphasized the word.

“She didn’t do it, okay. It’s a trumped up charge.”

Thaddeus went willingly into the carrier. He was nervous at first. He usually only goes to the vet, so as soon as he realized this was a different kind of outing, he calmed down.

I talked to him as I drove. “The cat you will be living with is Miss Kitty,” I said. “She is a calico named after Miss Kitty on “Gunsmoke.” She has a short stub of a tail just like you because long ago she got out and came back without the tail. We think she was caught in a trap. Don’t you ever get out on me.”

Thaddeus had lost his tail in a mean winter. He had crawled into a car motor for warmth, and when someone started the engine, his tail was cut off by the fan. That happened before I adopted Thaddeus from the local animal shelter. I make sure he is always safe and warm now.

I figured the two cats would like each other because they had the missing tails in common.

I must have a missing brain to get involved with Lisa Brianka’s troubles. But then I was already involved.

When we got to apartment above the Almasy House garage, Thaddeus was sleeping. I carried him upstairs.

Vonnie trusts only a few of us around her sister. Sometimes I’m the only one my boss lets near Lisa.

I opened the door to Lisa’s apartment. “Hey, Miss Kitty,” I called.

I didn’t see Miss Kitty anywhere, so I let Thaddeus out of the carrier and went back outside to get my things. I lugged the suitcases, the doll, the litter, and cat food up the steps and found myself out of breath. That was a workout.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if I could have the rest of the day off?” I said.

Thaddeus came from the bedrooms and rubbed against my legs. “Did you meet Miss Kitty yet?” I asked. “She’s here somewhere.”

The phone started ringing and then someone was knocking on the door. Did I dare answer either one?

“It’s me.” Vonnie called from outside. At least it was safe to open the door. “Do you need anything?” she asked once she was inside.

“Lunch. I’ve got a BLT from the Yorkie Cafe. Can I bum a cup of coffee off your staff?”

“You are my staff,” she reminded me.

“You mean no one else is working today?”

“They’re there. Welcome to your first day as hotel manager.”

“I can’t even manage these two cats.”

The phone had stopped ringing. That was a good thing.

“Give me a minute to look around and make sure I’ve got groceries and enough pet supplies.” I said.

Vonnie opened the refrigerator. “I had Jack buy you some groceries on his way north. He got cat food and there’s enough litter for now.”

“Jack’s here? He could be the one staying in this apartment.”

“He wanted a room in the main house.”

“Lucky him. He gets a choice.”

“Penny, we have serious problems. I need help, and I wouldn’t ask, if I could go someplace else.”

Of course. Secrets had to be kept. Jack, for instance, would be in disguise. He’s an ex-con and conditions of his parole keep him from coming to the Upper Peninsula at all. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t come. He visits often. But I realized staying in Lisa’s apartment would make him conspicuous. Someone would notice and he could end up in jail too. He would be better off at the farm with my hippy friends, but I knew he would want to be closer to his sisters, Vonnie and Lisa.

“Don’t worry,” I told Vonnie. “I’ll do whatever needs to be done.”

“Rent’s free,” she said. “Your salary is triple. Of course, you will also be working triple the hours. That means the historical society needs to find another clerk.”

“But I’m doing an oral history later today,” I said.

I needed some get-away time. I couldn’t think of a better place to hide than in the museum. After all it’s right there at Almasy House. I was not giving up my volunteer job with the historical society. I would manage somehow.

After she left, I checked out the apartment. Jack had brought a bag of potato chips and bottles of Coke. They would go great with my sandwich. But first I wanted to look around some more.

I’m a world class snoop after all. I can’t help myself.

I looked in Lisa Mynter’s closets and in her medicine chest. I might have to take clothes to the jail for her. The medicine chest was bare. She didn’t seem to be taking anything for her weirdness. I wasn’t sure what mental illness she suffered from, and I didn’t want to go over any of that with Vonnie .

I shouldn’t have to. I take care of the business; Vonnie takes care of Lisa. Wasn’t that our agreement?

I tried to call the Cheney place. The line was busy. I ate my lunch. Then I tried to call again. No answer.

There was always someone there to answer the phone. Then Lisa’s phone rang.

I decided to answer it. If it was a reporter or someone else I shouldn’t talk to, I could always hang up.

“Are you coming to work or not?” Vonnie asked. “I need you.”

“I’ve been trying to reach the farmhouse. Something might be wrong. I can’t get an answer.” I said.

“Turn on the T.V.,” she instructed me, “Channel 6.”

Lisa’s phone had a long cord, so I could reach across the room. I flipped on the television and saw the farm where I had been living. Sue was hiding behind a door. “No comment,” she said to a reporter before she slammed the door shut.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“That killer in Louisiana says he buried someone there on my land. There’s also the connection to Lisa’s case.”

“We can’t let them keep snooping out there,” I said. We had a nice cannabis patch behind the house.

“Do we have a choice? The cops have a search warrant. Reporters follow the cops.”

“What about my friends? They live out there.”

“Tell them to move if they don’t like it. Now come over to the big house. Things are just as crazy over here.”

I gulped down the last of my pop.

State Prison, Louisiana, 1970

Sheriff Miles Olson knew the procedure. He had been to the Louisiana State Prison before. He would be searched, photographed and then searched again. His keys and his badge had sharp edges, and could be used as weapons. They could not go inside.

He submitted to the searches. They were like a thousand searches he himself had conducted on prisoners. Only this time he was the one being searched. He didn’t mind it.

Heavy bars opened in front of him; doors clanged shut behind him. Miles wasn’t usually claustrophobic, but he felt hemmed in. It wasn’t enough to know he could walk out.

Finally he was seated in a room made of concrete and steel. The guard who had led him this far locked the door behind him. Miles waited. Time moved at a different pace in here.

He heard scraping noises. The door in front of him opened; another guard entered and then another guard. Behind them came the prisoner. He shuffled in followed by more guards. The prisoner’s legs and hands were restrained by chains that wound around his waist, his wrists and his feet. He sat down heavily, the chains clanging. A guard then handcuffed the prisoner to the table and secured both his legs to the chair.

The prisoner grinned at Miles; it was the kind of grin one would see on a Halloween display. It didn’t make it all the way up his eyes. Surely the prisoner hadn’t been drinking, but he seemed stoned; perhaps he was being drugged. Miles knew they drugged some convicts as their execution day got closer. The men waited until the guards left. Then they would talk.

“How you doin’ old buddy,” the prisoner said. “Still wearin’ a badge in that there hick town?”

Miles didn’t say anything. He stared instead at the prisoner’s forehead. He drummed his fingers on the table.

“You take care of what we talked about?” The prisoner seemed to be chewing something, perhaps gum. Did they give prisoners gum?

“I’m working on it.” Miles said.

“Work a little harder. It ain’t like I’ve got a lot of time left. I ain’t made all my confessions yet.”

Penny When I got to Almasy House the next morning, Jack waited for me in the foyer. He’s Vonnie and Lisa’s brother. We walked to Vonnie’s office, where she was talking to Paul Cantrell, Lisa’s attorney. Dancing Bear Cheney, a full blooded Ojibwa Indian, a licensed M.D. and the doctor on record for Lisa was there too. Most other people around here are too racist to be treated by an Indian, so Danni works mostly as a registered nurse and herbalist. I knew young Dr. Tracie would examine Lisa also, but he and Danni would most likely agree.

After Jack and I were seated, I said, “Go over it again; I want to know what’s happening.”

“What a surprise,” Vonnie said.

I gave her a look in return that said, don’t give me a rough time, and you need my help here.

Vonnie started telling us what she knew.

“Lisa was working with one of the new maids. We’ve been so busy; I had to hire some girls that I don’t know very well. Of course, I told them that Lisa has strange episodes, but I guess this maid was talking to some of the town’s people, and she was told that Lisa is more than a bit off. This maid also knew some things about…” Vonnie couldn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t have to.

“Lisa shouldn’t be working with strangers,” I said. “They scare her.”

“The girl seemed okay, and she had good references. Anyway they weren’t together long. I had them cleaning different rooms. But the girl is young and efficient; she finished her room before Lisa did and went in to help Lisa.”

“What happened?”

“Lisa started talking about killing someone.”

“What?” I said.

“You know she has hallucinations about people getting hung.”

“That doesn’t mean she hangs people.” She wouldn’t know how to do that. Hanging is how a group of men kill someone. A little old lady like Lisa Mynter would have difficulty hanging a picture. Anyway the charge was drowning Vonnie’s five year old son, Louis. I knew how much Vonnie must be hurting as she relived the tragedy.

I still didn’t get the connection between Lisa and her usual crazy banter and the accidental death of a child almost forty years ago.

The old timer was waiting for me in the museum’s gift shop. I led him into Mary Mentor Smith’s outer office. We would do the interview there. Old timers come to the museum to give us oral histories. They talk about the schools they went to, the cars they drove, the friends they had. I get information about the town and how it used to be from these old timers.

“Too bad about that there Brianka girl,” he said.

“She’s got a good lawyer, and Miles sure doesn’t have a case.”

“That girl is peculiar. Don’t believe she’s a killer though.”

“Do you know Lisa?” I asked.

“Not really. Heard lots about her though.”

“Did you know her dad?” I asked. “He worked in the Tilden Mine until 1925. That’s the year he disappeared.”

He nodded. “Knew him. He was a foreigner. Didn’t speak English the best, but he was educated. We all knew that. Something bad happened to him in the old country and he came here.”

“He was Jewish,” I said.

“That’s what they said.”

“Lots of people back then didn’t like the Jews, even here in this country. Do you have any idea what happened to him?”


“Some people say he was lynched.”

“I ain’t got any idea what happened to him.” The old timer repeated.

“The Klan had something to do with it.” I said.

He nodded. “More ‘an likely.”


In this part of the story Penny comes across as more reliable. We know Vonnie, a successful business woman depends on her. Yet Penny has hippy friends who smoke marijuana, and the reader is reminded of her dishonest past? What is your take on Penny? Is she worthy of trust?

In this part of the story we meet some less likable characters including a sheriff with dark secrets, a serial killer who is about to be executed and Jack, ex con who violates his parole by coming to the Upper Michigan. Are any of these characters in any way sympathetic? Which characters will be the greatest threat to Penny and which ones might prove allies?

The 20th century was our most violent century. Some groups, like immigrants and the mentally ill were targeted with hatred and prejudice. Already in this story, a mentally ill woman has been arrested for a crime she did not commit, and we have learned her Jewish father disappeared, perhaps he was even murdered. What other groups of people faced similar prejudice and what are some of the ways they deal with the prejudices aimed against them?

Sunday, July 10, 2016


Chapter One


Lisa Brianka’s arrest came as a shock to all of us. Even me. I’m the Mountain Ridge snoop, so usually I’m way ahead of the gossip, and I can even sometimes predict things like this. What I felt that morning was closer to fear than to surprise.

When I stopped by the Yorkie cafe the day after Lisa’s arrest, customers were discussing the latest Lisa gossip.

“Do you think she did it?”

“Of course, she done it.”

“She’s crazy.”

“Everyone knows that.”

 “Don’t mean she killed anyone.”

I glanced around at the dirty floor, the wooden tables, and the toy-sized juke boxes on the counter. Peter Paul and Mary sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Don’t I wish.

Everyone in this town knows what a snoop I am, so people were probably wishing I would do just that - leave on a jet plane or a bus. Anything to get me out of town.

They quieted down. That was all right. I’d heard enough.

I glanced at a copy of today’s newspaper lying on the counter. The Beatles had broken up. Darn. Richard Nixon defended his decision to invade Cambodia. The war in Viet Nam was as unpopular as ever.

I know a lot about unpopularity. I’m not even a war, just a girl trying to escape boredom.

Bev, the waitress, poured me a cup of coffee just the way I like it, strong and black. “Hi, Penny. What’ll it be this morning?” she asked.

“A grilled cheese with a thick slice of tomato. Hash browns. Keep the coffee coming.”

“You got it.” Before she turned to put my order in, she asked, “You know anything?”

“The alphabet, the state capitals and my multiplication tables right up to 13 times 13.”

“Don’t be a smart ass,” she told me.”Were you there when they made the arrest?”


“Did you hear anything?”

“What they said on the radio.”

“But you’ll tell me when you find out anything?”

“Depends on what I find out.”

“You know I could spit in your hash browns,” she said.

“You won’t though.”

“Don’t be so sure.” Bev took off with her order pad.

I smiled and waved at Elaine, the elderly cook, who was moving slowly about the kitchen; her arthritis was probably acting up. She ignored me. She’s got some kind of grudge. She says I stole some papers she threw out years ago. What can I tell you? They were at the curb, and I noticed them. She could have burned them. She could have read them herself before she put them on the curb for anyone to take.

I took a deep breath and sipped my coffee. I didn’t look around. I knew the other customers were looking at me. The Peter, Paul and Mary Record stopped. Then the only voice I heard was Elvis Presley’s. He was singing “Suspicious Minds.”

At least the waitress talks to me.

I was just finishing my sandwich when Leo Olson came in. He used to be sheriff here in Mountain Ridge. Olson arrested me back when I was eleven or twelve on a shop lifting charge.

It was a fifty cent tube of lipstick. I could have bought it, but how much fun would that have been?

Leo was 70 or older, but still tall and thin like teen age basketball player. His grey hair was cut short; his steely gray eyes looked at everyone like they were murder suspects or drunken drivers. His skin was weathered like a fisherman’s skin. Yet he wore his years well. I would see him walking and even jogging around town, fit as a man in his thirties.

I started walking toward the door. Then I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask. “Is Lisa Brianka all right?”

The stillness in the room was complete. Every other customer was wondering the same thing, but no one else was brave enough to ask.

Leo sipped his coffee really slow, and then took a deep breath. Cops know that silence makes the rest of us feel uncomfortable and even guilty. Finally he said, “I ain’t a cop anymore.”

“Your son’s the sheriff,” I reminded him. “Is Lisa being treated okay?”

“Far as I know. Miles ain’t here. He’s getting ready to fly down to Louisiana.” Surprise. I was getting information from a cop, but then the sheriff’s comings and goings wouldn’t be secret. Or would they? At least Sheriff Miles Olson had something to occupy him other than poor Lisa.

Norman Cain, a serial killer awaiting execution in Louisiana was spilling his guts, delaying his execution for crimes committed down south by telling authorities where more bodies were buried in the tunnels under and around Mountain Ridge. Dozens of state cops, crime scene investigators and reporters were in town covering the excavations. I supposed Miles’ presence was now and then called for down south.

“Our sheriff’s a busy boy,” I said. “He arrested Lisa last night, and then what? Today he gets on an airplane and flies south.”

“He’s busy,” Leo agreed. I wasn’t going to get anymore out of him.

“Tell Lisa I’m thinking of her, will you?” I said after a pause.

“I ain’t goin’ near that crazy,” Leo said.

I left my car in the cafe parking lot and walked to work. I needed time to think before I got dragged into Lisa and her problems.

When I was younger I used to steal letters from Lisa Mynter’s mail boxes. I don’t do that anymore. But I have read Lisa’s mail. Her daughter Dorothy was my best friend back in grade school; we were thick as thieves, no pun intended. More like thick as a thief and a fraidy cat. Everything scared Dorothy.

I used to surprise her with my daring. I would go into houses when no one was home. She would wait on the sidewalk, sure I would get caught. She would be wearing dusty gray pedal pushers, scuffed up sneakers and a red t-shirt- always red because she liked red. I would wave at her from a window.

She would duck and hide behind some bushes, so she wouldn’t call attention to me.

“You’re gonna get caught,” she would say when I crawled out usually with a few treasures.

“No I won’t.”

I was never vicious in my stealing. I didn’t take bills or checks or anything that looked like it might have value. I did take Dorothy’s doll. Well, Dorothy gave it to me.

Actually Dorothy wasn’t using it anymore. Her name is Penny, just like my name. Dorothy loved the doll and named it long before she met me. The doll is beautiful.

She is good Penny; I am bad Penny.

Upper Michigan is pasty shops; dirt roads surrounded by trees; hunting cabins; towns with main streets lined with bars instead of stores; men in Green Bay Packer gear; overweight women in blue jeans or, depending on the season, snowmobile suits.

Mountain Ridge is set on the Wisconsin border. Talk to the residents, and they know where to find wild mushrooms, blueberries and deer apples. Few people observe hunting season. Venison is served all year long, and it doesn’t always come from the freezer.

Mountain Ridge is one main street and half a dozen side streets. It’s not one of those towns with more bars than houses, but it’s still a redneck zone. Beyond this business district, there are hundreds of houses. Most residents are sons and daughters of miners. The iron mines played out and were replaced by two paper mills, a label factory and a furniture factory.

Sure we have dentists, doctors, lawyers and teachers, but they’re a minority. Most people here are hunters and gatherers or factory rats, uneducated. There are lakes and the summer homes of some of Michigan’s wealthiest families. But you have to drive out of town to find those homes.

I work for Yvonne Cheney, Lisa Brianka’s sister.

And Vonnie as we all call her was in for a difficult time. The murder Lisa is accused of committing is that of Vonnie’s five year old son, Louis back in 1940.

Why bring this old crime now? Why make an arrest on a cold crime? There isn’t any real new evidence.

You’d have to ask the sheriff that, and he wasn’t available.

I like to think I can stay away from Lisa and her problems, but I knew I’d be dragged in. It was not going to be an easy day at work.

My walk from the cafe to Almasy House was all too short.

Almasy House soon towered above me. It’s a bed and breakfast, museum, and haunted house, but not the kind of haunted house that scares people at Halloween. It’s a real haunted house with verified ghost sightings, built in 1902 as a boarding house for miners. But it served as a hotel too, and several prominent politicians and business men stayed there. It fell into disrepair for a few years and then a mysterious buyer or buyers purchased the property and hired Vonnie to run the place.

For a long time we didn’t know who this mysterious buyer was. Vonnie now knows who owns the house.

So do I? But then I am the kind of person who learns about secrets. That one was easy. Okay, Dorothy, told me. But I would have figured it out.

I know a lot about the Briankas, the Rinaldis, the Cheneys, and the Mynters, the families people around here like to talk about. That doesn’t mean I tell.

What happens within these families usually stays within the families. It is not my fault I hear things.

Almasy House is lofty and rambling. I used to be afraid of the house when I was a kid. Now I work there as a maid, and volunteer at the historical society that rents rooms there. We even keep a small museum and office where we are copying county birth marriage and death records. We’ve been busy copying for some time.

When I got to the house, I tried to sneak past the desk clerk. I clocked in, but then I hid my time sheet in my purse. I hoped that if no one could find me, I could clean a few rooms and, I wouldn’t get dragged into Lisa’s problems.

“Vonnie is waiting for you in her office,” the clerk said.

I knew she would be. Might as well get it over with.

Yvonne Cheney is usually calm and efficient like Donna Reed on that old television program where she played a doctor’s wife with two perfect children. Vonnie looks like a dark haired Donna Reed. But that day in her office, Vonnie looked frazzled like she had just been shocked by a strong current of electricity.

“What’s the charge?” I asked. “It can’t be murder. That’s what everyone is saying, but…”

“Negligent homicide,” she told me.

“What? That’s impossible. I thought the charges would be demised by now.”

“She confessed. That’s what Miles says.”

“Miles is in Louisiana. Or he’s on his way. I talked to his dad at the Yorkie.”

“Well he was here last night, and he’s coming back.”

“Someone must have pinned his badge on his brain,” I said. “Confession. Phooey. That won’t work. Lisa’s mentally ill. She would confess to bombing Pearl Harbor. What are they gonna do? Put her back in Newberry?”

Newberry is the state mental hospital and Lisa had spent some time there. Some people think she never should have left.

Vonnie wiped her eyes. I had never seen her cry. She is usually as calm as a parking meter.

“She didn’t kill your son,” I told her.

Vonnie nodded.

“I need you to move into her apartment.” she said.

“I’ve got my own place to stay.”

“Just for awhile. I’ll need you close by. You’ll be my assistant.”

 “I don’t want to stay in her apartment.” Lisa stayed above the garage, in what used to be the stables when this house opened. It was a nice efficiency apartment with a kitchen, bedroom, bath and a large living room. It was the apartment, I would have wanted if Lisa had not been living there. But I wasn’t going to tell Vonnie that.

“Think of it as free rent,” she said.

I frowned. “Why can’t I stay at the old Cheney farm house. It’s where I live.” Either way Vonnie Cheney would be my landlady. I did like the idea of free rent and being closer to my work, but I’d be closer to Lisa and her problems too. I was not going to let myself be drawn in any more than I had to.

“I need you here,” Vonnie said, “I have to help Lisa. You have to help me.”

Did I have a choice? I decided it would take me at least an hour to move in.

“I have a cat,” I reminded Vonnie.

“So does Lisa, and Miss Kitty needs to be fed. I don’t know if anyone’s been up there.”

“Just give me the key. I’ll check on Miss Kitty and then go get my things.”

As she searched her desk drawer for the key, Vonnie started detailing her problems. Not only was her sister being charged with negligent homicide, but it the tourist season. And tourists weren’t the only people interested in staying at Almasy House. We had all those cops and reporters taking up the rooms. What would we do with the season regulars when they showed up? That had already been decided.

The cops and reporters agreed to smaller rooms and even doubling up. But it was still a lot more work because we had more guests.

Vonnie said, “We have a historian in Room 217. He’s writing a history of this house. I told him you were the one to talk to, Penny.”

I grimaced. Why me?

Miss Kitty’s litter box just needed a little scooping. She still had some kibble in her bowl. I gave her fresh water and extra kibble.

“I don’t know when you’ll see your mistress again,” I told the cat. “But I’ll take good care of you.”

It was good I had left my car down the street. Walking those few blocks back to it gave me a chance to be away. Would the next few weeks be all that bad? I could probably run Almasy House as well as Vonnie could. I was proud she trusted me with the responsibility.

I wouldn’t talk to reporters, lawyers or police officers about Lisa. I knew too much and I was smart enough not to say anything.

I had free rent for awhile and two cats to take care of. Hadn’t I wanted a second cat for a long time? It would be good for my cat Thaddeus to have a companion and for me to be living closer to work.

Who was I kidding?

The next couple of weeks were going to be hell.

I decided to get a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich to go before driving out to the farm to get my clothes and my cat. The customers at the Yorkie were still gabbing.

“She’s getting off easy,” Bev told me. She gave me a coffee on the house while I waited for my to-go order. “Did you hear? The charge is going to be negligent homicide.”

“They won’t make it stick,” I said.

“I’m sorry, Penny,” she said. “I think they will.”

Some old men sat by the window drinking coffee. “Michigan should have the death penalty like they do down south? They should fry her ass like they’re gonna do to that feller in Louisiana.” One of them said. Bev put her hand on my wrist. “Pretend you don’t hear.”

Questions about the novel so far:

1. Penny Payton admits to being a dishonest person. She has a past that includes stealing and shop lifting. The townspeople don’t trust her. Will she be a reliable narrator?

What do unreliable narrators bring to the stories they tell? 2. Lisa Brianka is described as crazy. Why do you think terms like “Crazy” are sometimes used to describe people at society’s edge?

3. In helping Lisa, Penny has the advantage of her nosiness and even her dishonesty. Why do you think Penny, the community’s bad girl will help Lisa, the town crazy?

4. Penny is NOT a gossip. She keeps the town’s secrets. Does that make you like her more or less?

5. Why do you thin Vonnie, a successful business woman relies on Penny so much? Would you hire a maid with a reputation for stealing and snooping?

6. Lisa’s cat is said to be as crazy as she is. What does this tell us about the community where they live? Spoiler: The cats are safe in this story. It’s just the people who are endangered. The question is about gossip, not about cats.