I had a hard time waking up, but the jangle of the windup Baby Ben alarm clock was insistent. I dragged myself out of bed and pulled on my work clothes, including a clean, white shirt. Aunt Till insisted that I change my shirt each day. I splashed water on my face to get the sleep out of my eyes and ran a hand through my crew-cut hair. Fortunately, I didn’t have to shave every day yet. I stumbled downstairs to the restaurant.
While mopping the floor I was still reliving the events of yesterday, as I had for much of the night. My hormone-charged fantasy world had never equaled this reality. The arrival of Aunt Till and Uncle Jeff, an hour later, didn’t penetrate my euphoria. Then Patty and Ruth appeared on the scene and I saw them with new eyes.
I began to worry when it occurred to me that Aura always came downstairs before the other girls. Was she hiding out? Had I done something wrong last night? Was she mad at me? Time was moving on toward noon and the opening of the restaurant, but nobody said anything about Aura, at least in my hearing.
I finally became tired of the news blackout and said to Ruth, “Have you seen Aura?”
“She never came back last night,” Ruth said, smugly. “She’s not in her room. Probably spent the night with a fella. I’m not surprised. She’ll come dragging in at some point, all apologetic.”
I wanted to scream that she had been with me last night, but I didn’t say anything. What could have happened to her? She had said she was going for a short walk under the full moon. Nobody else seemed to be concerned. I had the feeling that whatever had happened to her was my fault.
I couldn’t wait until the first shift was over. Each customer who came in for Sunday dinner, each pot and pan that I had to wash, was a weight shackled to my legs, keeping me from looking for Aura. Finally, the last customer left, the last table was cleared, the last dish went into the dishwasher. I was free for the next two hours.
But where should I look? I could walk along the lakeshore, where she had been heading when I last saw her. But then it struck me that I would get the best view of the shoreline from the top of the hill. I grabbed Uncle Jeff’s binoculars from the windowsill in the kitchen and headed for the path that wound to the crest of the hill. It had been raining during the morning and clouds still blotted out the sun. I doubted that the girls would be sunbathing today, but I didn’t care. I needed to find Aura.
I reached the lookout point faster than I had yesterday, and while my breathing slowed I scanned the shoreline quickly with my bare eyes. Near the place where the girls had been romping twenty-four hours ago I saw something. I quickly focused the binoculars on the spot. It was a person all right, lying in the sand, facing away from me.
The dark hair, the halter-top, the white shorts. I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I recognized the clothes—recognized the girl. She wasn’t moving even though everything was wet. Nobody would stay out in bad weather dressed like that. I started running down the hill, shouting her name. I tripped over the vegetation and fell a couple of times, but I got up and kept running.
When I came within a few feet of her I slowed down. I wasn’t ready for the awful truth. I approached slowly and almost whispered, “Aura.” She hadn’t moved from the moment when I had first spotted her. I walked around her until I could see her face. It looked calm and peaceful, as if she were sleeping. Maybe…. And then, where her hair parted I saw the caked blood that had flowed out of her ear. Once more I said, “Aura,” this time, pleadingly.
It was Saturday, only the fifth day of my summer job, and already I was wondering whether I would last. This was hard work. I had come down from my room on the second floor of the rambling, wooden building in time to eat a quick breakfast and start mopping the floor at ten. After I finished mopping I washed the dishes left over from last night. And the greasy pots and pans, which I loathed.
Uncle Jeff wandered in, hung over, and started making shaky preparations to do the cooking. Aunt Till busied herself with the cash register and bossing everybody else. The girls came downstairs about eleven, in their long, gray waitress uniforms, ugly even for the year 1952. They were supposed to set up the dining room and make salads, but they seemed to spend more time talking than working. At least Patty and Ruth, the blond daughters of Uncle Jeff and Aunt Till, did. The dark-haired Aura, who I understood was the daughter of Jeff’s brother, was a better worker.
Once the customers started arriving, it was as if Aunt Till had thrown a switch. Suddenly, we all operated like cogs in a well-oiled machine. Aunt Till seated people. The girls took orders and relayed them to Uncle Jeff. He cooked the food and loaded the plates, without any sign of hand tremor. After I finished the leftover dishes I bused tables and then started the washing cycle again.
I was passing the freezer with a tray full of dirty dishes as Ruth bent over to scoop up some ice cream for a dessert. The waitress uniforms had U-shaped necks and I got a quick eyeful as her neckline dropped. She caught me looking and straightened up, tossing her nose in the air as if to say, “Keep your eyes to yourself.” That’s the way life had been going.
I had arrived with visions of partying with my cousins, but so far they had pretty much ignored me, except when they wanted me to clear a table for them. Well, Aura had chatted with me several times and smiled when she saw me. She wasn’t as bad as the other two.
The lunch shift ended for us at about two o’clock. Then the restaurant was closed until dinner. We had off from two to four in the afternoon. During my first four days on the job the girls had immediately disappeared at this point, leaving me alone, since Uncle Jeff usually took a nap and Aunt Till made telephone calls.
Maybe today would be different. I went to my room and put on my bathing suit underneath my shorts. Then I took a book down to the glider on the back porch that faced the lake, and pretended to read. Within a few minutes they came through the double doors, wearing shorts and halter-tops. This mode of dress completely transformed the appearance of each of them. They all looked delectable. I said, trying to sound casual, “Where are you off to?”
They glanced at me with smirks on their faces. Patty, the older sister, said, “Nowhere you can go.” Then they turned their backs on me and headed along the shorefront. Aura swiveled her head and looked at me once, with what I thought might be a sympathetic expression, but I may have imagined it.
I was crushed. How could they treat me like this? Just because I was younger. But then I got mad. I would find out where they went. But how? I couldn’t follow them without being seen. Just as teenage hopelessness engulfed me, Aunt Till came sailing through the doors and stood regarding me.
Aunt Till was tall and had the same blond hair color as her daughters, but I was sure it was dyed. Twenty years and twenty pounds ago she had probably looked as good as they did, but more robust. I had heard she had been a jock. She had even played semi-pro baseball for a while, before the women’s professional league was formed.
She held a cigarette between the second and third fingers of her left hand. When she saw me looking at it she said, “Don’t start smoking. It’s a filthy habit.” She took a drag and said, “You’re doing a good job, Tom. I shouldn’t tell you this, but you’re much better than the nitwit we had working for us last summer. All he wanted to do was to drink our pop and sleep in the sun. What are your plans for the next two hours?”
Caught lacking said plans, I mumbled something about reading my book and perhaps writing, using the portable typewriter I had brought with me. After all, if I wanted to be a writer….
“The girls are giving you the air, aren’t they? Little snobs. Don’t tell anybody I told you this, but I know where they are. See that hill over there? There’s a path to the top and from the lookout point you can get a great view of the shore. Take Uncle Jeff’s binoculars with you. I think you’ll like what you see.”
After fifteen minutes of exertion I arrived at the top, panting. Trees blocked my view of the shore, but I spotted a clearing and headed for that. It was perfect. I could see several miles of shoreline, but I was hidden behind bushes so that nobody could see me. And there the girls were, below me, on the sand of a secluded beach. But they looked different, somehow. It couldn’t be.
I raised the binoculars to my eyes and twisted the dials until everything about the girls was in sharp focus. And I mean everything. They had taken off their clothes and were totally nude. No wonder they had such good tans. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. In those days, before Playboy, I had only glanced at a couple of nudist magazines, and I was still fuzzy about some details of female anatomy. All my questions were answered that afternoon.
First I watched the blond sisters playing in the shallow water. They were definitely natural blonds. There was a revenge aspect to this because of the way they had treated me. But I lusted after them, even though they were my first cousins. Then I focused on Aura and fell in love. She was Aphrodite, splashing out of the water onto the island of Cyprus. Never had there been a more beautiful girl. I became so involved in watching her that I almost didn’t start down the hill in time to beat them back to the restaurant.
We finished working the evening shift at ten-thirty. Aunt Till didn’t believe in child labor laws, especially where relatives were concerned. On the previous nights I had gone almost directly to bed after work and read a book until I fell asleep. But tonight was Saturday. Saturday nights were meant for fun. And I was still jazzed up from my experience that afternoon.
I wanted to do something with the girls, but my hopes soon faded. I overheard Patty and Ruth talking. They both had dates. Uncle Jeff would drive into town and get drunk. Even Aunt Till drove off somewhere in the old pickup truck. That only left Aura unaccounted for, and because she had disappeared I assumed that she had a date.
I went out onto the porch. Light from the moon and the summer lodges on the lake outlined the curve of the shoreline. The evening was warm and humid. I slapped at a few mosquitoes and thought that my victory of the afternoon was a hollow one if all I could do was look. I wanted some action.
“So what’s going on?”
I jumped, startled by the voice out of the darkness behind me. I turned toward Aura and tried to look nonchalant.
“Oh, I’m just admiring the view.”
“Everybody went off and left us, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Aura was wearing the ubiquitous shorts and a halter-top. She looked as good in the moonlight as she had looked on the beach. I didn’t know exactly how old she was, maybe a year or two older than I was. I straightened to my full height, which was an asset, and tried to act mature.
I said, “So would you like to do something?”
“Let’s just sit here and admire the view, like you were doing.”
She sat down on the old glider. I sat beside her. It creaked as we gently rocked it with our feet, in the dark. Crickets chirped and fireflies winked. We didn’t say anything for a minute or so. I desperately tried to think of a smart topic of conversation.
I said, “Patty and Ruth must have boyfriends.”
“Left over from last summer. Those girls are wild. They’re going to get themselves knocked up. They’ll have to get married before they’re twenty.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Go to college.”
“Me too.” I hoped she wouldn’t ask what grade I was in.
Aura looked at me and said, “You’re a good worker. The boy we had last summer didn’t pull his weight. Spent all his time flirting with the girls. But don’t let the girls get to you. They like to bug the boys. They think they’re hot stuff.”
Apparently, she didn’t put herself in the same class with them.
Then she said, “I understand you live near Buffalo.”
“Yeah. Where do you live?”
“Rochester. And you live with both parents?”
“Must be nice.”
“It’s okay. Er—”
“I live with my mother.”
She had anticipated my question. But the way she said it told me not to ask any more. She was silent for a few seconds, but then she said, “If I tell you something, will you promise not to talk about it?”
“Sure.” I felt important.
“The reason I live with my mother is because…my parents weren’t married.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say.
More silence. Then she blurted out, “Jeff—Uncle Jeff—is my father.”
Complete shock. There were no words for a revelation like this. Somehow, “I’m sorry,” seemed sadly inappropriate.
Aura continued, talking almost to herself. “Uncle Jeff had an affair with my mother. He was already married to Aunt Till.”
The silence became uncomfortable. Aura said, with a short laugh, “So now you know how I got my summer job.”
I chuckled. The air cleared a little. We talked about other things. She slid closer to me on the glider until our shoulders touched. I became uncomfortably aware that I was still sweaty from working in the hot kitchen. If that bothered her, she didn’t say anything. Unlike me, she smelled clean. She had taken a shower.
I can’t describe exactly what the mechanics were, but over the next few minutes our cheeks gradually came together and then our lips. Before I knew what was happening we were engaged in open-mouth kissing, something I had never done before. She tasted as good as she smelled. This went on for a long time, with short breaks for breathing. I wished it could last forever.
Finally, Aura broke it off and said, “It’s late. You have to go to bed.”
“What about you?”
“Soon. I’m going for a little walk first.”
“On the shore? It’s dark.”
Aura pointed to the sky. “Full moon. I’ll be able to see okay.”
Our hands touched and then slid gently apart as she walked down the steps toward the shore.
I didn’t think I would ever go to sleep, but I didn’t care. The buzz from the day’s adventures lasted for hours. My room was right beside the stairs. Eventually, I heard four pairs of footsteps tap-tapping up the stairs. I could tell Uncle Jeff’s because they were the heaviest. I never heard the fifth pair.
“Tell me how you found her.”
Sergeant Graves spoke in a gentle voice and looked at me with kindly blue eyes that made me want to tell him everything. His short, sandy hair gave him a youthful appearance, although the wrinkles around his eyes indicated that he was older than he looked. Even in his uniform he wasn’t forbidding. He leaned forward, his elbows on the wooden table, his pencil poised to take notes.
I leaned forward, also, my elbows on the table, across from him. I should be working the evening shift now, not sitting in the police station, but Aunt Till had closed the restaurant for the time being. I started telling about going up the hill.
“Why were you concerned about Aura?” Sergeant Graves asked, interrupting me.
The question confused me. “Because she didn’t show up for work.”
“Did you know of any possible reason why she didn’t show up for work?”
“Okay. What made you think you could spot her from the top of the hill?”
“Because she said she was going for a walk last night and she headed along the shore. I…thought I might be able to see the shore from the top of the hill.”
“What time did she say she was going for a walk?”
“About eleven-thirty. Maybe a little later.”
“So you were with her just before she was killed.”
I wasn’t sure when she had been killed. I kept silent.
“What were you doing together?”
“Uh…talking.” I was getting uncomfortable with the questions. What did this have to do with finding the murderer? While I was wondering, Sergeant Graves told me to go on with my story.
He let me get out a few sentences before he interrupted, saying, “How long have you been in Littleton?”
“Had you been up the hill before?”
I spoke before I thought. “No.”
There was a knock on the door of the little room. Sergeant Graves answered it and stepped outside. My brain was in a fog. I tried to reconstruct what had happened since I had found Aura’s body. I had run back to the restaurant along the shore and roused the family with my shouting. The girls had collapsed; Uncle Jeff and Aunt Till had looked shocked, sat down hard, and asked me questions. Aunt Till had recovered enough to call the police.
First one policeman came and then more people. I led them to Aura’s body. They kept the rest of the family and curious onlookers away from the scene as they searched the area and snapped pictures. I wasn’t there when they finally took Aura away. Then Sergeant Graves came and said he needed to talk to all the members of the family at the police station. For some reason he wanted to talk to me last.
He returned to the room, carrying some things in a box. He smiled his disarming smile and said, “You said you had never been up the hill before this afternoon.”
“What about yesterday? Did you go up the hill yesterday?”
What did he know? I was trapping myself. I had better keep quiet.
He pulled the binoculars out of the box and said, “Do you recognize these?”
“Yes. They belong to Uncle Jeff.”
“We found them at the top of the hill.”
“I…I dropped them after I spotted Aura.”
“Your Uncle Jeff said that he noticed they were missing yesterday. You went up the hill then, didn’t you?”
He asked the question as if this was a secret just between us and before I could stop myself I said, “Yes.”
Sergeant Graves smiled, made a note and said, “Right. Now let’s go back to last night. Where were you when you were necking with Aura?”
Necking with Aura? I couldn’t believe my ears. Nobody else had seen us.
“Come, come, Tom. You can tell me.”
Sergeant Graves pulled a white shirt out of the box, like the shirt I wore at the restaurant, and said, “We found this in your room. It’s the shirt you wore last night, isn’t it?”
He turned it around and showed me the collar. It was covered with lipstick.
“And this is Aura’s lipstick, isn’t it?”
I hadn’t noticed the lipstick when I had taken the shirt off last night.
“We were on the porch…the porch of the restaurant,” I stammered.
Sergeant Graves raised his eyebrows and pulled a piece of white typewriter paper out of the box. He slid it across the table toward me and said, “When did you give this to Aura? It was in the pocket of her shorts.”
The paper had been folded several times and had obviously been wet. Still, I could clearly read the words typed on it: “meet me at secluded cove at midnight.”
“I didn’t type this,” I said, nervously. For one thing, I knew how to use the shift key to type capital letters.
Sergeant Graves pulled another piece of paper out of the box and said, “We typed this on your typewriter. The typeface is the same as on the note and if you compare the e’s you’ll notice they are filled in the same way, indicating that your keys need cleaning. And the clincher: If you look at them through a magnifying glass you can see that there’s a little piece missing from the t’s.”
I had brought my father’s old Olympia portable typewriter to the lake with me, intending to keep a journal. So far, I hadn’t written anything.
“Tell me if I have this right,” Sergeant Graves said. His voice was engaging but calm, like that of a person telling an interesting but not unusual story. “You arrived here last Monday and started working at the restaurant on Tuesday. Working with three very pretty girls. Naturally, you wanted to get closer to them, but they went off somewhere during their afternoon breaks and excluded you.
“On Saturday you decided to follow them, but you couldn’t just walk along the shore behind them because they would have spotted you. So you conceived the idea of going up the hill, thinking that you might be able to see them from the top.”
I was hoping my expression didn’t show the horror I felt. How did he know all this? Had Aunt Till told him?
“Fortunately, you thought to take Jeff’s binoculars with you. For this was your lucky day. There they were, sunbathing—in the nude. And the binoculars brought them up real close and personal, didn’t they?”
Sergeant Graves smiled a conspiratorial smile. My own face was frozen.
“But you wanted to do more than just look. So yesterday evening, amid the hustle and bustle of the restaurant, you slipped the note to Aura, hoping against hope that she would show up at the place that had a special meaning for you. Your luck continued because she did—perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps because she really liked you.”
His story had diverged radically from the truth. But I was unable to speak.
“You did some necking, but again you wanted more. When Aura wouldn’t put out you got mad at her. You took a big stick that you found—a piece of driftwood, wasn’t it?—and you bashed her in the head. It was a crime of passion.”
Sergeant Graves leaned back in his chair and looked very pleased with his story. Before I could say anything he said, “That was a nice touch, being the one to find the body. Unfortunately, it also gave us a pretty good idea of what led up to the murder. Especially when the girls admitted their sunbathing habits. But what I’d like you to do right now is to show me what you did with the murder weapon.”
Aunt Till smiled a little, in spite of everything, and twisted a lock of her short, blond hair between her fingers. She said, “No, Tom, Secluded Cove is the name of the cove. Everyone who lives here knows that. And Aura obviously knew it because she was going there with Patty and Ruth.”
“I didn’t know it.” I felt a little better. I had just said to her, “Even if I had given the note to Aura, how would she have known where I meant when I said to meet her at a secluded cove?”
It was the next day and I was spilling all my fears out to Aunt Till. Since it was a Monday the restaurant was closed, but she had said she would keep it closed until Aura’s murder was resolved. We were sitting on the porch glider, facing the lake. The glider where Aura and I had sat two nights ago.
“Tom, it’s obvious to me that you didn’t have any part in Aura’s death. I had a long talk with Sergeant Graves this morning. He thinks he’s clever, but he has very little practical experience in solving murder cases. There aren’t a lot of serious crimes here. He sees this as a chance to be a hero. While he was grilling you last night I called my brother—your dad—and told him what was going on. He has to work today, but your mother is driving here to take you home.”
“Can I leave, just like that?”
“In spite of his brave talk, Sergeant Graves doesn’t have any evidence good enough to hold you. And I want you away from here so the good sergeant will quit following will-o-the-wisps and concentrate on finding the real killer.”
“But….” I hadn’t been able to sleep for the second straight night. Instead, I had gone over the happenings of the previous two days again and again in my mind. “The note was obviously typed on my typewriter. That means—”
“That means the killer had access to the upstairs and knew you had a typewriter in your room. That narrows it down considerably, doesn’t it?”
I looked at Aunt Till. We were obviously thinking the same thing. Only members of the family had access to the upstairs. The door to the stairway was in the corner of the dining room, but it was kept closed and bolted when the restaurant was open. In addition, a sign reading “Private” was tacked to it. Anybody trying to use the stairs who was not a member of the family would have been immediately spotted.
Aunt Till put a consoling hand on my shoulder. “This is not your problem, Tom. I can handle it. Now I want you to go home and try to have a good summer. Forget about everything that happened here.”
I walked into my father’s study feeling some trepidation. I hadn’t done anything wrong, that I could bring to mind, but in the past when I had been called into his study it had often been because of a misdemeanor on my part. And the study was where I had received a tongue-lashing or, in my younger days, sometimes a spanking.
He sat behind his desk, looking stern, but that was a normal look for him. I noticed again the facial resemblance between him and Aunt Till. They both had slightly elongated faces, but the shape, though distinctive, added to their looks. His hair was darker than Aunt Till’s, but then he didn’t dye it.
“Sit down, Tom,” he said.
The voice he used wasn’t his disciplinarian voice. I breathed a little easier and took a seat opposite him, at what he called the typewriter table. His Olympia portable sat on the table and brought back memories.
“Tom, it looks as though Aura’s murder has been resolved. I got a long letter from Till. Jeff was convicted. He’ll be spending the rest of his life in jail. I felt that you should know the details.”
I was glad to hear that Uncle Jeff had been convicted. I had traveled back to the lake to testify at the trial, particularly about what Aura’s frame of mind had been when she left me to walk to Secluded Cove. I said she had seemed happy. I certainly wanted to remember her as being happy about our time together.
“Did Aunt Till say what evidence was used to convict him?”
“Yes.” My father glanced through a number of handwritten pages. “I’m going to let you read this, yourself, but I want to go over the highlights with you, in case you have any questions. It seems that Jeff had typed the note on your typewriter during the afternoon break on Saturday. Maybe he was trying to frame you. Anyway, you kids were all out at Secluded Cove….”
Here my father gave a little smile, even though it was unlike him to talk about or even acknowledge happenings of a sexual nature. I hadn’t thought before that Uncle Jeff might be trying to frame me. If so, Aunt Till had saved my bacon.
“And Till was downstairs phoning suppliers. Jeff slipped the note to Aura during the evening shift. Till and the girls didn’t know that Jeff was Aura’s father. Aura had been threatening to tell Till the story if Jeff didn’t give her and her mother a sizeable amount of money he had inherited from his father. Jeff apparently said he would think about it, so when he gave her the note she assumed he was going to discuss the money with her in a place where they wouldn’t be overheard. But he got rid of her, instead.”
“That’s gruesome.” Sure, Uncle Jeff was an alcoholic, but I still had a hard time believing he would murder someone. “How did they find out that Aura had threatened him?”
“The police found a letter that Aura had written to Jeff, demanding the money. And Till testified that Jeff had been despondent since they had opened the restaurant for the summer, but wouldn’t tell her the reason for it. He had been drinking more than usual.”
“So Aunt Till testified against her own husband.”
“She was seeking justice, Tom. Even though Aura was doing a bad thing, she didn’t deserve to die.”
“Did they find the murder weapon?”
“No, it was never found.”
The autopsy showed that Aura had suffered a massive skull fracture. She had been hit on the left side of the head by something heavy, like a log. She had no other injuries and there were no signs of a struggle.
“Sergeant Graves asked me what I had done with the driftwood when he accused me of killing Aura. Has Uncle Jeff confessed?”
“No. He continues to maintain his innocence. But he also couldn’t produce an alibi for the hour surrounding the murder.”
The word echoed through the downstairs of my old farmhouse. How could a ninety-year-old lady on oxygen have such a strong voice? I knew that she would keep up the racket until I went to see what she wanted, so I might as well go. Besides, I had a question for her. The question involved a picture I had just found that brought back a flood of memories.
I was going through boxes of her memorabilia on my dining room table to see if there was anything worth saving. Other than a few clothes, these boxes contained most of the remaining evidence that she had lived a life. Her house had been sold three weeks ago. All of her furnishings and everything else she had owned had either been sold or given away. I knew because I had presided over the dissolution.
I walked the few feet to the doorway of the small room she now called home and said, “Yes, Aunt Till. What do you need?”
Aunt Till sat ensconced in her wheelchair, crammed in beside the twin bed. This is where she spent her days. In spite of the summer warmth that rolled in through the open window she wore a sweater, as she always did. Her short, gray hair stuck out at odd angles. I had brushed it this morning, but I was no hair stylist. The lady who took care of her had the day off and so I had the duty.
An oxygen tank sat on the floor beside her. A clear tube stretched from the cylinder to where it was fastened below her nostrils. The small television set on the dresser in the corner was tuned in to a soap opera. She gestured toward the table that stood near the wheelchair.
“I knocked my water over.”
Sure enough. The glass was on its side and the water covered the table and was dripping onto the hardwood floor.
I put a smile on my face and said, “No problem. I’ll get a towel and clean it up.”
As I walked to the kitchen with the glass I reflected once again that I hadn’t known how much trouble it would be to take care of an old woman who needed constant attention, or I might have put her in a convalescent home. She was well off, financially, but Aunt Till hadn’t wanted to go to an “old folks’ home,” as she called it.
I had agreed to take her in because I was her geographically closest relative. I still lived in the family home near Buffalo. I had never married. Her two daughters wouldn’t have her. Besides, one lived in Florida and the other in California. My house was only sixty miles from hers, which made the move relatively easy.
I cleaned up the mess and brought her a new glass of water. Then I got the black-and-white snapshot I had found and showed it to her, saying, “When was this taken?”
Aunt Till peered through her glasses at the picture. Her eyesight was still relatively good, so when she didn’t say anything for a few seconds I looked at her face. It registered recognition and perhaps shock. Finally she said, “Nineteen fifty-two.”
Fifty years ago. The summer I worked at the restaurant—for six days. “It must have been taken before I got there. I don’t remember—”
“It was taken the day we opened the restaurant for the summer.”
“I got there a few days later. Let’s see. There’s you. And Uncle Jeff. And Patty and Ruth and Aura.”
They were standing in front of the building, with the sign, “Lakeview Restaurant,” over their heads. They all looked young. The girls were wearing their waitress uniforms. And they were smiling. Aunt Till seemed to lose interest in the picture. She turned her attention back to the television screen. I took it from her and left the room.
She called after me, “My oxygen is almost empty.”
“I’ve got a new cylinder ready to go.”
“Don’t run off anywhere until you replace it.”
Ah, the fears of old age. But hers were justified. I doubted that she could last ten minutes without oxygen. Even though she had stopped smoking twenty years ago. I looked at the snapshot again. There was Uncle Jeff, not even looking hung over. He had died in jail. And Aura—I couldn’t believe she had been dead fifty years.
Next in the box of souvenirs was a baseball picture. A young woman in uniform was taking a mighty swing at the ball. Could it be? I carried this picture into Aunt Till’s room and got her attention away from the television set.
“Is that you, Aunt Till?”
Her eyes lit up. “I was playing for a team called the Panthers. I hit that pitch for a homerun. If I hadn’t married my worthless husband and had two ungrateful daughters, I might have played professionally.”
“So you batted left-handed.”
“Like Lou Gehrig. He was my idol.”
Back in the dining room, my attention turned to a cloth bag, closed with a drawstring. Something long and thin was inside. It hadn’t been high on my list of Aunt Till’s possessions to check out, but now I opened the top and reached my hand in. I pulled out an old, wooden baseball bat. Judging from the ball marks on the meat-end, it had seen a lot of use.
I took the bat into Till’s room and balanced it on one finger, a trick I had learned as a youth. She looked at it and I could see memories behind her eyes.
“When was the last time you used this?” I asked.
“The last time? Lordy, I don’t know. It must have been in the forties.”
“Going through your possessions has got me thinking about the summer of 1952. And one thing I think is that you knew Uncle Jeff was Aura’s father, and had known for a long time, even though the conventional wisdom was that you didn’t know. Aura even told me and I don’t think she would have done that if you hadn’t known.”
Aunt Till gave a slight shrug, as if to say, “So what?”
“Another thing I think is that Uncle Jeff was going to voluntarily give part of his inheritance to Aura. Aura wasn’t pressuring him. In fact, she didn’t have any leverage to pressure him with.”
“Jeff didn’t know I knew. Aura wrote him a threatening letter—”
“Which you could have forged weeks before, since you had traded letters with Aura about working for the summer and therefore had samples of her handwriting. That letter and your testimony convicted Uncle Jeff, didn’t it? I’ll bet you typed the note about the meeting at Secluded Cove while he was taking his nap. I’ve always wondered why you sent me off to ogle your daughters when you knew they were sunbathing naked. You wanted me out of the way.”
“You should thank me for that.”
“I did, at the time. So you gave the note to Aura and said it was from Uncle Jeff, and that he wanted to discuss something important with her. Since you were a secretive family, she bought it. But you went to the meeting instead of Jeff—with your beloved baseball bat.”
“You can’t prove any of this.”
Now it was my turn to shrug. “Another thing I’ve always wondered is why Aura had such a peaceful look on her face. If she had seen the person who was about to smash her with a baseball bat, she would probably have been registering horror.”
“Her facial muscles could have relaxed after she was hit.”
“But there were no signs of a struggle and she had no other injuries. I’ve gone over this a thousand times in my mind. Aura was hit on the left side of her head. A right-handed person facing her would have hit her on the left side. But what if the killer had hit her from behind and caught her unaware? If the killer had been left-handed, the blow would have hit Aura on the left side of her head. A homerun hitter could have killed her with one swing.”
“She didn’t deserve the money.”
“But you did. And the best way to get it was to kill Aura and frame Jeff.”
Aunt Till chuckled. “My grandmother—your great grandmother—would have called that killing two birds with one stone.”
I chuckled also. “I have to run some errands. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“Change my oxygen first. It’s registering empty.”
“I’ll change it when I get back. Ta ta.”
I shut her door and locked it from the other side. One advantage of living on a farm is that loud noises, such as screams, don’t bother the neighbors. As I walked to my garage I raised my hand, as if for a toast, and said, “Aura, this one’s for you.”