I almost didn’t answer the call that changed my life. Telemarketer, I thought, burying my head in the pillow with a groan. But in my family, a phone ringing in the middle of the night always signaled disaster. So I was genetically wired to jab that loudspeaker icon and croak, “Hello?”
“There’s been an accident. Your aunt is missing.”
“Your aunt,” said a man’s voice.
“Are you sure you have the right number?” I reached for my robe and slipped in an arm. After flailing about, I realized I’d grabbed a pair of jeans. Forget the robe. It wasn’t as if anybody was in my bedroom to ogle.
I dropped the jeans back on the floor.
“Are you Verity Hawkes, Adeline Hawkes’ niece?” I groaned again, inwardly this time. I hadn’t spoken to my estranged—and slightly deranged—aunt in years.
“That’s me.” I sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing my eyes, as the caller droned on. Given Aunt Adeline’s talent for getting into, and out of, sticky situations, I decided not to panic for now.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Wilfred Mullins, Adeline’s lawyer. I’m sorry I didn’t get in touch earlier, but—”
“What’s she done now?” I asked, cutting him off as I padded along the hall to the kitchen. Mullins said the police had dragged her empty car from the river a week ago. There was still no sign of my aunt, who was “presumed dead.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he added. I refused to believe it. Not Aunt Adeline. Just because her car was in the river didn’t mean she was in it when it pitched over the railing. Besides, my aunt could survive a plunge over Niagara Falls. Possibly without a barrel.
“She’s not dead,” I said.
“The police think—” “They’re wrong.”
I slipped a pod into the coffeemaker and turned it on.
Then I walked into the living room
to open the blinds. Early morning sunlight spilled into the room, illuminating stacks of self-help books, a ragged sofa the color of mud, and dust bunnies big enough to form their own union. I did my daily count of construction booms in the blocks around my apartment. Seven. One more than a month ago, but no new ones. For now, my view of a sliver of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet was intact.
“I realize it’s difficult for you to accept,” the lawyer said, his voice echoing from the phone on the kitchen counter. “It’s a shock for all of us. But somebody in your family has to come to Leafy Hollow and deal with this, and you’re the closest.”
I walked back to the kitchen, eased my filled mug from the coffeemaker, slopped in a dash of cream, and took a long swallow before replying.
“I’m two thousand miles away,” I countered.
“Still the closest,” the lawyer insisted.
I assumed that was a reference to my dad. He probably refused to drag his latest new bride from Australia to a tiny village in southern Ontario because a former sister-in-law had disappeared. Particularly since the sister-in-law considered him a useless dolt and was never reluctant to say so.
That left only me. Verity Hawkes, a twenty-eight-year-old unemployed bookkeeper with no idea how to find a missing sixty-five-year-old woman. And even less idea of what to do if she couldn’t be found.
Or didn’t want to be found.
While the lawyer carried on about powers of attorney and something called holographic wills, I thought back to the whispered late-night phone calls I’d overheard as a child. Back then, Aunt Adeline ran an office-services company and risked, at most, paper cuts. But my mother’s panicked expressions had suggested something more dangerous than mail merges.
In fact, what my only aunt did to earn a living was one of the great mysteries of my childhood, eclipsed only by sex—and why the Backstreet Boys didn’t come to my birthday party when I was nine.
I took the phone into the living room, pushed aside my copy of Ten Paths to Clarity through Tidying Up, and collapsed onto the sofa with my bare feet on the coffee table. I explained to Mullins that I hadn’t left my apartment building in two years. Normally, I didn’t mention this to strangers, but it was unavoidable given the circumstances. It wasn’t technically true, either, since I had visited the bookstore across the street a day earlier. I liked to take a self-help book with me to the basement laundromat, and then smile and nod above its cover at the neighbors who insisted I come to dinner now that I was alone. I found that Help for the Overly Hirsute best deflected unwanted conversations, and the bookstore had called to tell me of a new illustrated edition.
The lawyer ignored my objections, preferring to prattle on about flight times and unaffordable limo services. My gaze fell on the dracaena plant I purchased after reading Achieving Peace through Nature. I must have skipped the chapter on maintenance because the dracaena’s formerly lush green leaves were the same color as the sofa. “If you took the red-eye, you could be here by this time tomorrow,” Mullins intoned. He wasn’t listening.
With a flash of irritation, I picked up the dead dracaena and tossed it through the opening in the wall between the kitchen and living room. The potted plant plopped into the garbage container that sat open on the kitchen floor, rocking the bin. I pumped my fist. A three-pointer.
“Miss Hawkes? Are you listening?”
To be honest, I regretted my ongoing feud with Aunt Adeline. But her current predicament was a problem that required the grown-up Verity. I wasn’t sure I wanted that Verity back.
I stretched my arms overhead, mulling it over. Although it had been years since I’d been in Leafy Hollow, the village lived on in my memory as a perpetually green and blissful refuge. A place where no one was too rushed to offer a friendly wave, well-mannered children in pastel overalls traded Pokémon cards, and rain never dampened the world’s most adorable homes. With a twinge of guilt, I shifted my gaze to the framed photo over the television. Matthew wouldn’t have wanted me to be sad. And how could I be sad at Rose Cottage, surrounded by the intoxicating scents and colors of Adeline Hawkes’ magnificent garden? The woman might be eccentric, but her dahlias were legendary. She never would have killed a dracaena. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll come. Give me a day or two.”
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