“You are back early, Michael,” said Mrs. Neil.
Michael ducked his head through the low doorway and into the kitchen of the Banes-Flatt, where the stalwart owner of the old B and B sipped her morning tea. She sat on a tall wooden chair beside a well-worn butcher block, teacup in hand. A small pot nearby was kept warm with a tea cozy he imagined she had knitted herself. The woman was someone who offered Michael a sense of warmth and affection. She had a confidence of place and circumstance that he found comforting after his years of sparring in the courtroom. Michael knew his opinion of the woman was of no consequence to Mrs. Neil. Moreover, he suspected that outside the small village, her demeanor would crumble or harden, either possibility leading her back home to her natural habitat. Mrs. Neil had told him within moments of his arrival at the B and B that she had been to London only once and to Manchester and Leeds only a few times in her whole life. But there, in her B and B, she was queen. And commander.
“Yes, I’ve decided it should be a short day,” Michael replied meekly. He could see that she noticed his timidity. Still, she left him to his privacy. He liked that trait about Mrs. Neil, too. He liked people who stayed out of other people’s business, especially those folks not seeking entry into someone else’s drama.
What was it, he ruminated as he stood just inside the room with its too-low ceiling and smell of age-old bacon fat, that made people want to join in another’s misery? So often he had met the village busybody snooping into his affairs, even though he was simply enjoying a beer in his cycling clothes with his bicycle nearby. What was it with those old codgers? he thought. Throughout his career, Michael had met hordes of those people, regular spectators in courtrooms, who made sure that somebody else was having a worse day than they were. Some would be there with earnest interest in the legal system, while others not so much, misery their only company. But Mrs. Neil was nothing like that, and he respected her for her sincerity above all else.
“Will you be having lunch with us then? You have not enjoyed one of my lunches yet, Michael,” she said as she quickly returned to practical matters.
“Yes, I believe I will. I’ll be down after cleaning up and changing out of these cycling clothes.”
“Right then. It is shaping up to be a splendid day. I think the garden will serve nicely for your lunch,” said Mrs. Neil.
* * *
Sitting in the midday sun and looking up at crisscrossing contrails in the sky, Michael absorbed the comfortable surroundings of the garden. He mindlessly wondered what made those darned things, besides jets flying by at high altitude. Michael, never a scientist, found himself wishing he knew about such things, such inner workings of science. Always wanting to know more, aren’t you? He mulled over this question for the millionth time in his life. And these musings brought him back to what he hopelessly wanted to know: What was Elisabeth into? Was she okay? Where was she?
He felt guilty sitting there enjoying the sun while she was… was what? He was still not sure. He wondered why he held so tightly to his concern for Elisabeth, particularly because he knew so little about her. Why did he cling so vehemently to those few tense seconds when he saw her in that old car as she looked back at him with desperation in her eyes? What more could he do? The police were on the case. He hoped they considered it to be a valid case, something they would continue to pursue. Earlier, he had also ridden about the small village on his bike looking for her. That search had not taken long. What more could he do? He deeply wanted an answer to that question. What more could he do? But he knew he was trying too hard, forcing an answer, any answer, to reveal itself. Michael let his mind wander, knowing he would never get a resolution to his problem or any sort of inspiration (or even a simple sign) if he clung too tightly to his desires.
He had convinced the police inspector to put her people on the lookout for the man and woman in the red car. She would not go as far as an all-points bulletin, or whatever they called it in England, but she did direct local constables on patrol to report to her if they saw the car in question. And she would investigate, “given the opportunity,” she had warned.
He allowed his mind to slide back to the evening before and his delightful conversation with Elisabeth. They had talked late into the evening, comfortable, in no hurry. He remembered telling her about being introduced to the white wine varietal called godello. “Pronounced goh-DEH-yoh,” Michael said as he mouthed the word slowly for her comprehension.
“Are you familiar with the Christian pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago?” he asked Elisabeth. She tilted her head subtly to one side with a go-ahead gesture. Her lackluster response indicated only a mild interest in the subject to Michael, but he went on anyway. The Camino was one of his favorite topics outside of England. Assuming that all Europeans were aware of the Camino, he found her apparently slight indifference surprising.
“Well, in a nutshell, it’s a thousand-year-old pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There are many—maybe dozens of—walking paths that lead to what is reportedly the final resting place of St. James. The St. James, one of the twelve apostles,” he added for emphasis.
Michael continued. “Some years ago, I was walking the Camino route known as the Via de la Plata from Seville, which is in the south of Spain, to Santiago in the northwest portion of the country. That was my second time on Camino, and on that trip from Seville, I met several people, many of whom are still in contact with me today. Some of those folks were Spaniards, of course,” he reported. “One of them, a younger man from Ourense, was happy to drive us about one day and show us his beautiful city and some of the historical sites in the hilly countryside. That evening, we all went out for pinchos and vino.”
Elisabeth seemed relatively more interested in the subject, and Michael added, “I had mentioned to José—that’s the man’s name—that I liked albariño, another Spanish white wine. José quickly set me to ‘an even better one.’”
“Godello,” Elisabeth said to finish his thought.
Maybe her response was genuine, maybe not. She had seemed interested in his stories. Or was it the evening’s wine? Michael reflected on those choices as he continued to soak up the sun in the little garden. Mrs. Neil would soon be out with his lunch.
* * *
As Michael basked in the warm glow of the sun, eagerly anticipating a pleasant meal in Mrs. Neil’s garden, he began to recall those special evenings with colleagues on the patio at the Hyatt Regency near the State Capitol in Sacramento. Why? Why back there? Why now? He thought of those days of working with colleagues and discussing legal matters, those days of logically questioning other people to recall the facts of a case and to confess them, to tell the truth. He and his peers would sit there, drinks in hand or nearby, mostly telling stories, and learn from each other the fine art of the inquisition.
He also remembered the chiding he had received from his so-called buddies when female attorneys or other women joined them there on that patio, their favorite haunt. It was one of their go-to places, a place to unwind and talk about their respective cases. But there were times when the situation became more stressful.
“Hey, Michael, here comes Darcy Handler. I asked her to join us for drinks,” his close friend and fellow attorney Matt said to him one night, a devious look on his face.
“Why do you have to do this to me, Matt?” asked Michael. “She is incredibly beautiful, and she knows it, but you asked her here just to see me lock up, didn’t you? You prick.” Michael made a few contemptuous facial expressions.
He and Matt had worked at the same firm for several years, and he liked the guy. Matt was a good lawyer, he admitted, and he enjoyed working with him. Matt behaved decently enough until it came time to address Michael’s issues with women. Matt may have thought he was doing Michael a favor by putting the pressure on him, inviting the likes of Darcy Handler for drinks, but such efforts seldom worked out for Michael.
He could still see Darcy’s beautiful long legs making their way across the patio toward him and Matt as he recalled one particular event in early spring a few years back. Her legs, the pair he had admired many times before, were sheathed in dark sheer hose atop black stiletto heels. Michael also knew she was bright and well respected in the courtroom. But her lean figure was presented as a masterpiece of the gods as she removed a stunning gray angora long coat, revealing the very expensive matching gray designer dress that highlighted her beautiful curves. He could also clearly recall Darcy’s gorgeous straight dark hair flowing in one long mass over her square shoulders. The lovely tanned skin of her face and arms told the story of her recent week spent on the beach in Cancun, Mexico.
* * *
Recall! Michael’s emotions suddenly awoke; inspiration had struck. What had Elisabeth told him the night before that might be of help to him and to the police in finding her? She had spoken about a home in the Alps, but she had only mentioned it briefly. She had talked about her time at university, but she had not identified where. And America. What had she said about America?
Michael slipped into the moment when the two had first met. Applying recollection techniques he had learned long ago and had used countless times on other people, Michael began the hunt for the needle in the proverbial haystack; he would probe his memories this time.
His hopes were high that he could find more than one needle when Mrs. Neil brought him the lunch he had requested from the short selection—a Reuben sandwich.
“Would you like a beer with your Reuben, Michael?” asked Mrs. Neil.
“Not today, Mrs. Neil. Thank you, this will be perfect,” he replied. Michael knew one thing: he needed a clear head for this new line of questioning.
* * *
Michael carefully began reflecting on the conversation he had had with Elisabeth the previous night.
“What other places have you visited?” she asked Michael as the salads arrived at their table that evening.
“Oh, Africa, Asia, South America. More like hitting the high spots than really being on the ground and getting to know people. When I was still working, I didn’t have that sort of time,” Michael replied.
“But now?” she said, pressing Michael on.
“Well, now, I get to spend more time, weeks even, in a place like this and get to know people like Mrs. Neil and her fellow villagers. I get to have great conversations with them and others I meet along the way. Like beautiful women such as yourself,” he said teasingly.
“How very funny,” she retorted.
“What about you? I know you have spent much time in Europe, of course, and some in America, but have you been elsewhere?” Michael asked.
“Not much, but I have a long list of places I would like to see. A ‘bucket list,’ I think you Americans call it, right?”
“Yes,” he replied. “So what’s on your bucket list?” he asked as he figuratively bracketed the last words with his fingers.
He could sense, now thinking back, that Elisabeth got more information out of him than he did out of her. She did seem somewhat evasive, he thought, now that he had a clear head. He had told her of encounters he had experienced with people in Chile, of friends he had made in Spain, and of people who had travelled with him over the years. But she had only talked about places she wanted to visit. Yes, Elisabeth had redirected their conversation quite often, he realized.
“Well, when I was a girl at home, my parents had little money, but we did make trips to Germany and Switzerland occasionally,” she said, her eyes wandering off, the pictures of those days in her mind, Michael imagined. “But we always took the train. People in Europe use trains, not cars, like you do in America.” She finished her thought and looked back at him.
“I would think that those trips gave you a sense of wonder about the world, huh? My father took us on road trips in an old Ford sedan, even if only for a daytrip. We had a ’57 Chevy wagon before that. Dad had fashioned a bunk bed of sorts in the back so we could camp out with that car. I don’t remember the trips too much, but I remember that bunk bed for some reason. Dad always seemed to want to know what was on the other side of the next hill or what was around the next corner.” Michael finished his story, hoping it had spurred her to reveal more about herself.
Michael’s attention suddenly returned to his present lunch in the garden. Only then, sitting with a bit of sandwich in his hand, did he realize how much more he had tried to get from her as they had talked that evening. Was she purposefully avoiding his questions? Did she want to know more about him, something about him? Or was she hiding something about herself? he contemplated.
There was more; there must have been more, Michael thought. They had talked of other subjects, hadn’t they? He was trying too hard again, so he focused on his sandwich, returning to a state of mindfulness he had learned from friends who practiced meditation and followed Eastern religions. He focused his awareness on the flavor of the bread and how it felt on his tongue. He relied purely on his senses to center himself, allowing what he sought to come freely. His fingers sensed the rough homemade bread in his hand. He picked up the flavor of the rustic mustard Mrs. Neil said she had made herself. And he felt the chair beneath him, the warmth of the sun, and the slight breeze making its way through the garden and over his face.
* * *
“Mr. Seltzer,” the inspector called out as she and the police constable entered the garden through an archway covered with tiny pale-pink roses. “Having a bite of lunch, I see,” she added as the two officers approached Michael’s table.
“Yes, I thought the break would help me to think, to maybe remember more about Lil… Elisabeth.” He finished off his sentence with a submissive tone. Even though Michael had spent a lifetime working around law-enforcement types, he still held a trepidation for their power over others and how they could ruin one’s life in short order if they “got a bee in their bonnet,” as his great-grandmother used to say.
“Have you found her?” Michael asked the inspector hopefully.
“No, nothing new there. But one of our constables did know of the Land Rover in question and has run that lead to the ground.” The inspector took a seat at Michael’s table, though he had not offered it to her.
Michael regretted being so negligent in his manners toward the inspector, so he courteously asked, “Can Mrs. Neil bring you something? For you or the constable? Please sit, too, Constable.” He had found his manners, though a little late. He wanted the answer to be no so they could get on with their report, but he would be polite to them.
Not seeming to notice or care about Michael’s social faux pas, the inspector responded, “That’s okay. We won’t be here long. But thank you all the same.”
The inspector moved on with her report. “This constable I had mentioned, when he heard my request that the officers be on the lookout for your vehicle and the details of the event, had called me about the Land Rover. Apparently, just the other day, he had an issue with the young man driving that vehicle. This young man is an heir of the Macon family over at their estate near Chesterton. Bit of a wild child, I gather.” She paused for Michael to absorb what she had said so far. “I understand, again from our constable, that he is up from London for the summer and has approval from his father to use the Land Rover. But he has been seen in several close calls throughout the county. Our constable has questioned the young man about this morning’s event, and he reports that it was this young man who almost ran you over.”
Michael sat for a moment, gathering his thoughts. He looked down at the remains of his sandwich and then asked, “So you believe this incident has nothing to do with Elisabeth and her abductor. Is that right?” He carefully chose his words.
“Yes, we do. We understand that he, this young Macon, was returning home from a party near here last night, one that he stayed at the entire night apparently. He has a young woman who will corroborate that story, he has said. The constable here will check with the woman for us, but the tale seems quite plausible. He was apparently in a rush to get home before his parents found out that he had been gone all night. He says his father holds a tight leash, though that does not match with his driving record.” The inspector finished relaying these last details to Michael and gave a tight smile.
“Very well, if you don’t think it related, then I’m not concerned with the young man’s actions,” said Michael, though he would hold off on a final judgment for a while longer. It was a seriously close call for him, one he would not soon forget. “Nothing more on the red sedan, I take it,” he added, quickly moving on.
“No, nothing more. I’ve not heard from anyone on that score. We will let you know if we hear something more,” the inspector stated. “Please enjoy your lunch. We’ll leave you to it.”
Michael looked down at the few bits of his lunch that remained and remembered that beer Mrs. Neil had offered. But again, he decided against the idea. He needed to give last evening more thought, and he needed a lucid mind for that. Leaning back in his chair, he cradled his head with his hands behind it and looked out over the garden, staring into the street past the delicate white fence and archway of roses and out toward the village commons. Where did this all begin? he mused.
To purchase this cozy mystery for your Kindle, click this link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07HQY23TR
Or to purchase a paperback version, click this link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1724103164