FOWL PLAY

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CHAPTER 1

Thanksgiving was a week away and Lilly Carlsen was running herself ragged. Her to-do list included preparing her jewelry shop window displays for the holidays, visiting her mother, Bev, as often as possible at the assisted living facility, and getting Bev’s house ready to put on the market. But Lilly was no quitter, so she was also worrying about Vanessa’s future as an unwed mother, fretting about the trip to Afghanistan that Hassan was planning, and experiencing the entire spectrum of guilt over moving Bev out of the home she loved and had lived in for decades.  

It had been another long day at work and she was glad to be home. She gathered her purse, her sketchbook of jewelry designs, her travel mug of coffee—left untouched since her arrival at work early that morning—and got out of the car. She started toward the house but turned around when a sudden and heavy pounding from next door echoed through the otherwise quiet neighborhood. 

“Come on, Xavier!” someone yelled. It sounded like a woman’s voice. Lilly set her things on the roof of her car and walked over to the neighbor’s front yard. She had glimpsed the new occupant of the house from afar but not yet met him. It seemed he had an irate visitor. 

“Hello?” she called into the darkness. Two sconces, one on each side of the front door, illuminated the person making all the noise. It was, indeed, a woman. She was practically buried under an armload of boxes and bags. Lilly walked a bit closer and raised her voice so the woman could hear her. 

“Hello? Is everything okay?” 

The woman uttered a tiny shriek of surprise, then turned her head. “Oh, yes. Everything’s fine. I’m sorry if all my noise disturbed you,” she called out. “I’m trying to get Xavier to open the door. I know he’s in there.” 

“Can I help you hold that stuff?” Lilly ascended the front steps and held out her arms. The woman looked grateful as she handed Lilly two of the smaller boxes to hold. 

“I’m so sorry about this.” The woman reached out a manicured finger and pressed the doorbell three times. “Here I am with all this stuff Xavier asked me to bring him and he’s not even answering the door. Oh, I’m so rude. I’m Mimi Gordon.” She made an attempt to shake Lilly’s hand, but the tower of boxes she was holding threatened to topple over, so she gripped the boxes more tightly and laughed. “We can shake hands some other time.” 

Lilly grinned. “That’s okay. Why don’t you just put everything down while you wait for him to get to the door?” 

“Because if and when he opens the door, I want him to see how hard I’m working to get him settled in.” She winked. 

Lilly had no idea what Mimi was talking about, but she stood next to her, thinking of how ironic it was to have someone on this particular porch apologize for making so much noise. 

Until just a few weeks ago, the house had belonged to Edna Laforge—or rather, to Edna Laforge’s estate. Edna had died of a sudden heart attack in the spring and it had taken her sons several months to get the house cleaned out and put on the market. Once it was up for sale, it sold quickly.  

Mimi knocked on the door again. “Xavier!” she yelled. She let out a loud “ugh” and turned her head toward Lilly. “You don’t have to wait here. It’s cold out. If you can just set those boxes down on the steps, I’ll—oh!” 

The tower of boxes in her arms started to sway. She overcompensated for their movement by jerking her arms and a moment later the entire pile came crashing down onto the porch. Boxes spilled open, spewing their myriad contents: pencils, pens, small memo pads, photos, empty manilla folders, cords and cables, two fake plants, several magazines, and about a million other small things that would take forever to clean up. 

“I don’t believe this,” Mimi muttered. “I am going to kill that man when he opens that door.” 

“Let me help you,” Lilly said. She set her boxes down and knelt next to them, reaching to pick up a pen still rolling across the floor.  

“Thanks.” Mimi pushed an empty box toward her. “It doesn’t matter if it’s neat. Just shove stuff right in there. I’ll get everything straightened up and put away one of these days.” She busied herself scrambling for bits of paper and small office items that were scattered everywhere.  

Lilly tried to ignore the hunger pangs gnawing at her stomach and bent forward to reach a folder that had slid across the floor. As she dropped it into the box, she heard a faint click and the front door swung open.