School teacher Judy Winters finds love and family as she works to discover her aunt's murderer on the home farm.
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Lisa J Lickel
School teacher Judy Winters sets out to solve the mystery surrounding her only living relative’s murder back on the farm where Aunt Louise grew up. She encounters Hart Wingate, a young man renting the adjoining farm who had helped Aunt Louise with farm chores. When Judy learns that her boyfriend, Graham, has been secretly visiting Louise, Judy takes the opportunity to move away from him for the summer and think over the situation.
Judy loves her teaching job, but is intrigued by her heritage in the farmstead and particularly the old house. She stays on the farm and renovates the house, but whether to sell or stay, she has yet to decide.
Midnight visitors, a job offer, and new friends, along with one special old one—Carranza, the opinionated cat—all figure into Judy’s dilemma.
Meanwhile, Judy learns that a former friend of Louise’s father, Bryce, lost a treasure of gold somewhere on the farm. As Judy and Hart look for clues to the cause of Louise’s death and Bryce’s missing treasure they develop a close friendship. Judy decides to break off her relationship with Graham, who doesn’t take the news very well.
As Judy explores the house, she finds and follows clues in Louise’s mother’s diary to unearth the buried treasure. But was it the treasure that might have been behind Louise’s murder?
Judy Winters made divots in the lawn with her church shoes, the ones with the high heels she saved to wear once a week. She stopped her frenetic crisscross pacing under the clothesline to look at her trail. Hah!
She could dethatch the entire yard if she kept walking.
She needed a few minutes away from everyone in the house. Just a few minutes to grieve alone. And to think
Hand at her brow to shield the sun’s harsh light, Judy surveyed her late aunt’s farm. The half acre
surrounding the house sure could use work. What had Aunt Louise done these past two years to allow her
once-lovely yard to decline into crabgrass and thistles?
Birds might enjoy the seeds, but she’d let the place go. Only a recent lawn-mowing kept the dandelions from taking over. Judy brushed a tear off her cheek,
wondering inanely who had mowed since Louise’s death.
Aunt Louise had reported feeling not up to par a week ago, and Judy offered to come for a visit.
“Nothing to worry about,” Aunt Louise had assured.
“Better that I rest, and I don’t want you catching whatever bug I’ve come down with, Judy dear.”
And then the shocking phone call came from her aunt’s solicitor, Gene Reynolds. “Sorry to inform you,
Miss Winters, but your aunt, Louise Jamison, has died.”
Before Judy could catch a breath to respond, Reynolds continued in his monotone, “Looks like an apparent
case of poisoning, according to initial reports.”
What was the saying? That Louise bought the farm?
Judy shook her head. What a horrible way to occupy her thoughts with her closest living relative freshly buried.
She continued to meander in the yard. Walking might keep her from wailing in grief in front of all these people. Louise had been all the family she had
ever really known.
Gene Reynolds approached her as many of the guests were leaving. “Miss Winters, again our condolences.”
He took her hand into his pudgy moist one. Judy steeled herself not to shudder. “I have the legal
paperwork regarding Louise’s estate to go over with you at your convenience.”
Reynolds’s pupils flickered just enough for her to notice. He has something to gain. Sometimes her ability
to decode body language came in handy. She’d picked
up the skill in one of her continuing education courses
and never seemed to be able to shake it.
Judy removed her hand from his. “Thank you.”
Other friends followed Reynolds to seek her out before
taking their leave. She accepted a shoulder squeeze from
a neighbor, an offering of sympathy, and an invitation to
church while Reynolds stood guard on her right.
When they were alone, Judy asked, “Would this
afternoon work for you, Mr. Reynolds? I don’t want
to rush or seem greedy, but I have two weeks left of
the school year in Lewiston, and I need to get back to
6 The Gold Standard
“Miss Winters, this afternoon would be fine. How
about I go to the office, pick up the files, and return
. . .say, in an hour or so? We can go over everything
“Yes. I appreciate your time.” She watched him
clasp his hands together before joining his stately blond
wife in the driveway. He wants something, I can tell.
“Good-bye.” Judy waved at the last lingering guest,
a woman dressed wildly in clashing plaids whose name
she couldn’t conjure. She could barely remember most
of the names and faces of Aunt Louise’s many friends.
If not for her boyfriend, Graham Montgomery,
standing at her side all day until he had to leave for his
own job, Judy didn’t know how she would have dealt
with her aunt’s untimely and wholly unexpected death.
Graham had not complained once about making small
talk with strangers.
While she waited for Reynolds to come back, Judy
continued to poke holes in the creeping charley under
the clothesline. This was where they’d found Aunt
Louise. No one had removed the laundry Louise carried
to the yard after apparently ingesting some sort of lethal
concoction. The basket still sat near the lilac bush, its
clothing dried and no doubt hopelessly wrinkled. A
yellow twin sheet that Louise had managed to pin up
before her collapse snapped in the stiff breeze. At the
resounding echo, she heard a flutter of cackles from the
chicken coop, which was built against the barn a few
hundred yards behind her. Louise kept animals on her
working farm. Not just the noisy, colorful chickens,
but cows, too. Judy visited on occasional weekends and
The Gold Standard 7
even helped with chores under Louise’s watchful eyes,
but she’d grown up in Lewiston and didn’t have the
foggiest idea how to tend to their general day-to-day
Since she had rushed to tiny Robertsville from her
home across Wisconsin in Lewiston upon learning the
dreaded news of her former guardian’s death, she had
given little thought to the farm. Someone must have
been caring for the animals. She hoped.
Poison. Louise’s condition at the time of death led
the emergency room doctor and the sheriff to suspect
a toxic substance of some kind. She’d obviously been
sick, and her skin was mottled. But Louise was the
smartest person Judy knew. Her demise couldn’t have
been accidental, no matter what the doctor thought.
Barry Hutchinson, the chief of police in Robertsville,
agreed with Judy. But how to prove it? An autopsy
report with a toxicology screen would not be available
Judy resumed her agitated pace, shoving a bothersome
wisp of brown hair behind her ear.
What was that in the laundry basket? Something
moved. Judy peered more closely. There it was again.
A black-tipped tail twitched from the depths of the
“Carranza! What are you doing in there?” Drat.
She had forgotten about the ferocious cat Louise
brought when she moved back home to the farm upon
her own father’s death two years ago. Carranza obeyed
only Louise once he felt Judy abandoned him—and
then only when it suited the feline. He lifted his head
8 The Gold Standard
lazily in her direction and offered the malevolent stare
she remembered well. She shivered. “Carranza, get
away from there,” Judy said again, weakly, hoping the
animal wouldn’t come her way. He raised his head, a
bra strap entangled around his ear. Carranza shook
his head and blinked then began insolently licking an
outstretched paw, claws extended.
Enough of that. No way was she going to get into
a power struggle with a pet cat. Her class of eighth
graders, maybe; felines, no. Judy turned her back. The
air was redolent with fresh-cut alfalfa. Her aunt rented
acreage to a neighbor named Red Hobart. Judy inhaled
enough to feel dizzy with the fragrance she normally
loved. Today the scent nauseated her. She couldn’t begin
to imagine what Mr. Reynolds would tell her. Louise
had never married or had children of her own and was
the only child of her parents who’d both lived and died
in Robertsville. Louise had spent her own adulthood
raising a young, orphaned Judy. Maybe the property
would be sold or something and she wouldn’t have
to worry about what to do. The farm had been in the
family for generations, so she hoped there wasn’t any
major debt involved.
Heading toward the orchard, she almost tripped
on an overturned bucket at the edge of the mowed
area. Sinking to her knees to better see what was
buried there, Judy pushed aside some of the foxtails to
discover a tiny rose plant with buds so large they would
have tipped the slender stalks had they not been held
up by the sturdier weeds.
“Poor thing!” She yanked out some of the taller
The Gold Standard 9
field daisies that blocked the sunlight from the roses.
“That should help a little.” She should really try to
tidy up the mess for the buyers and get the yard in
shape. If only she’d known; really taken a good look
at how much Louise had needed help, she would have
. . . Would have what? Left her new job and come
live with her aunt like some little girl who couldn’t
make it on her own? She was doing well, handling her
independence. In fact, her principal had recently called
her work “exemplary.” Her students needed her.
Judy leaned back on her haunches, tilting her face
to the sun, and listened. Catbirds in stereo with the
tinny peaceful hum of distant cicadas took her mind
off Lewiston and her job. She pushed herself to her feet
to continue her inspection of the overgrown orchard.
A flood of childhood memories from her many visits
to the farm—apple blossom petals falling like snow
and picking fruit in the fall—lulled her.
A cloud scuttered by overhead. Judy shivered. She
rubbed her arms and checked her watch. Four thirty.
Back in the main yard, she stopped in front of a gnarled
stump. A single mossy branch dangled like a broken
arm but bore a number of determined green leaves.
Judy smiled and touched the deeply grooved brown
bark. A bee buzzed nearby. She walked around to the
other side where a weathered emblem appeared, carved
into the trunk. Bending low, she traced a misshapen
“Can I help you, Miss Winters?”
Judy looked up from her vulnerable crouch and
froze at the sight of a well-built young man in aviator
10 The Gold Standard
sunglasses striding up the unkempt lawn. The man
came to a halt at the edge of her personal comfort zone.
She watched lines form between his eyes and realized
that her nervous smirk scored no points. Not a good
way to make a first impression. Or second, since he
knew her name.
“I don’t think so,” she said in her most polite voice.
Judy pushed herself upward and held out her hand.
“And you are?”
The man had his hands on his hips. He belatedly
reached out to grab her hand. “Hart Wingate. Mine’s
the adjoining farm. I helped Louise and her father,
when he was living, with chores. The police asked me
to keep an eye out for strangers.”
Judy nodded. “Yes. My aunt mentioned she’d had
someone in to help her. I assumed she meant a hired hand.
You don’t know what really happened here, do you?”
“No. I wish I did. And I don’t work for Louise.
I helped her when she needed it after she came here
when her father Harold died. I don’t recall seeing you
here before the funeral.”
Taken aback, Judy opened her mouth to reply
that she hadn’t met him before, either, when they were
hailed from the yard.
“Hello, there! So, you’ve met each other. Good.”
Gene Reynolds, accompanied by Red Hobart, who
had changed to work coveralls from his funeral suit,
stood waiting for her. “Red insisted on joining us,
Judy. Says there’s an important clause in the will that
“Hi, Red, Mr. Reynolds,” Judy said. “So you both
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know Mr., um, Mr.—”
“Wingate,” Hart supplied.
“Sure, sure,” Red said. “Hart’s been great since even
before Louise moved back home, mowing, taking care
of the cows. Harold couldn’t manage anymore, you
So Hart had mowed. And did chores. Aunt Louise’s
father had passed away so soon after her return to the
Judy whirled around to face Hart. “Thank you for
all of your help. Mr. Reynolds will advise me about
what to do next and, I’m sure, contact you. Well, so
Reynolds kept quiet after Judy’s little speech. She
supposed she sounded rude, but this was Louise’s farm,
and that Wingate person said he had his own place
next door. He must be busy enough with his own work
without doing double duty.
Reynolds turned toward the house. “Shall we go,
She followed Reynolds, Red close on their heels.
The big old American gothic house seemed to leer at
her. Without Louise, she felt like an intruder. Two
years ago Judy had started her new job at Lincoln
Elementary School teaching eighth grade, and Louise
said Judy was now grown and no longer needed her.
Louise, Louise, you’re wrong. I need you now.
Judy was weary with decision making, meeting
people she only vaguely remembered from her
childhood when her aunt introduced her to neighbors.
Tired of trying to find a place to put the food that
12 The Gold Standard
arrived daily from her aunt’s well-meaning friends.
People who identified themselves as being from the
state crime lab or the sheriff’s department came twice
before the funeral, asking permission to photograph
and take samples from the barn, yard, and kitchen.
As a teacher, Judy would have been curious about the
work if she hadn’t been overwhelmed by the reason for
Judy took a critical look around the kitchen while
Reynolds tossed a scuffed leather briefcase onto one
of four chrome chairs. He then rubbed his hands and
indicated the room with a generous sweep of his right
arm. “Vintage 1950s. People pay good money to get
this look nowadays. What you have here is original.”
She swiveled slowly. Reynolds found the light
switch. An overhead chandelier garlanded with webs
cast a hesitant forty-watt dent in the gloom. Judy
noticed flies clustered in the corners of the shadowy
high ceiling. Why is it grunge is only noticed through a
guest’s eyes? Cavernous cupboards overwhelmed a tiny
window over the sink. Reynolds pulled out chairs, first
for her and then for himself, and began to unpack his
briefcase before sitting. Red Hobart hooked a seat of
his own and straddled it backwards.
“Here we are,” Reynolds announced, as if they’d
all come from the four corners of the earth. “First, let
me tell you that it has been a pleasure serving your
family, and I hope that you and I will continue a longterm
relationship. Louise was a truly honest, dedicated
farmer and conservationist, greatly admired by all
those in her circle. Upon her father’s death we drew up
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a will to try to prevent some of the unfortunate issues
we encountered with his passing.” Reynolds sorted
through folders. He halted long enough to zero in on
Judy with his black-framed plastic glasses. “Louise’s
father Harold passed intestate.”
Judy gulped back a giggle at Reynolds’s pronouncement
and quirked an eyebrow in question.
“That means he never bothered to put his estate
in order,” the lawyer enunciated critically. “So let us
A half hour later, Reynolds’s raging torrent of
handiwork slowed to a trickle. Judy was impressed
with the amount of work that went into preserving the
Jamison farmland. However, her aunt’s last wish left
her in consternation: Should Judy choose not to reside
on and farm the property for at least three years, it
would pass to KOWPIE, a local grassroots organization
specializing in protection of natural areas. Louise’s farm
would serve as the district office.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Judy couldn’t believe
she’d heard correctly. “They call themselves ‘cow pie’?”
Reynolds frowned behind the glasses. “I believe. . .
ah, yes. Here. It stands for Keep Our Woods Pristine
In Essence. But, of course, there are always ways to get
around this little hiccup in your inheritance,” Reynolds
said. “Our office also handles real estate, you know, and
I can tell you without reservation that I have a number
of qualified offers on the table from nice people who
are eager to make you comfortable. So comfortable
that you need never worry about money again if you
accept the appropriate deal.”
14 The Gold Standard
He pulled a manila folder from his case. “I warned
your aunt against those nut-job nature freaks. I’ve heard
rumors about guns and bombs. They run some sort
of military-style training camp to show how regular
folks can create fortresses on their property. Make
sure no honest, decent people can build a new home
for themselves wherever they please. This is America!
Anyone can build wherever he wants.” He huffed.
“Promising to care for the earth? The earth is here to
take care of us, I say.”
Judy stared at her entwined fingers on the speckled
tabletop. “Do you know any of those people from
KOWPIE? How did they get Aunt Louise to sign her
property over to them like that? What if I decide I can’t
“No, I don’t know them. And I can’t begin to
understand how Louise would have dealt with such
riffraff.” Reynolds punctuated the word with a sharp
grimace. Judy noticed something else about Reynolds’s
expression—a twitch of wiry black nose hair, gone in
an instant. He’s lying. Why would he lie?
She closed her eyes, recalling the sound of Louise’s
voice during a prior visit. “I practically had to call
the police the last time. Those land-hungry grubbers
drove right up my driveway and pounded on the door
bold as brass. Man in a suit told me he wanted to buy
just a little of my land. I’m sick and tired of those
fools. Strangers. From Chicago. Imagine, anyone just
waltzing around the neighborhood asking to buy other
strangers’ land. A person can’t even expect privacy on
his own property anymore.”
The Gold Standard 15
Judy focused on the pompous lawyer. “Thank you,
Mr. Reynolds. I don’t think my aunt wanted that.”
Reynolds’s little black pupils flickered with greater
wattage than all the bulbs of the chandelier, and she
felt certain Reynolds included himself as one of those
nice people who would like the right to develop her
farm into neat little subdivisions. Probably with a
playground and a gas station and a dog park. Carranza
would love that. “What about Mr. Hobart’s claim?”
Hobart hadn’t said a word during the whole
presentation. She would have forgotten his presence if
not for the emanation of machine grease and manure
competing with alfalfa radiating from his person.
Somehow, that smell made the kitchen feel more like
home than Reynolds’s musky cologne.
Red Hobart’s family farm sprawled over two hundred
acres across the country lane. Judy had heard the
Hobart name mentioned by Louise and Harold for as
long as she could remember. The Hobarts and Jamisons
had lived and farmed together for generations.
“See, Miss Judy,” Hobart began in his rural drawl,
“the Hobarts did a favor for the Jamisons a long time
ago. Long time. In exchange for this favor, the Jamisons
promised the southwest forty to the Hobarts whenever
this here farm passed from Jamison hands.” Judy
folded her arms and knew what was coming. She could
almost hear the next line. Hobart’s mouth formed the
words as if he chewed on a long stem of grass. “You,
ma’am, are not Jamison.” He ducked his head to pinch
an ant crawling up his bib then targeted her again in
his sights. “No offense.”
16 The Gold Standard
Judy was more offended by the “ma’am” than
Hobart’s accusation. She hated being “ma’am’d.”
“Now, Red, strictly speaking, that’s not true,” Reynolds
cut in. “Miss Winters, here, is a Jamison relation
on her mother’s side.”
“So far back it don’t matter none. Hardly more’n a
drop of Jamison blood.”
“Nevertheless, you are not entitled to that forty
based on this clause, which says, and I quote, ‘If said
property passes out of the hands of any Jamison heirs
or such heirs do not farm said property, the southwest
quarter of the southwest quarter of section twenty-one
shall be given to descendants of Clem Hobart to be
used for his own purposes in gratitude for aid given
during dangerous times.’ End quote.”
“Right. And I claim my promise now. If Missy
Winters here ain’t gonna farm, I got my rights to that
Judy leaned forward, placing herself between the
two men who’d subconsciously moved closer to each
other during their exchange. “Please! Mr. Reynolds,
Mr. Hobart. I haven’t decided for sure yet, but I may
stay here for the summer while I work on my master’s
degree. I want time to consider all the ramifications
of my actions. Since I see that rental payment for
the cropland covers the taxes and my needs are few,
I should be able to take enough time to make a good
decision. One that will benefit everyone involved.”
Reynolds fixed Hobart with a glinty glare. “Judy
may need to make some decisions soon regarding
renters.” He addressed her next. “If you recall what
The Gold Standard 17
I showed you earlier, Miss Winters, and take note of
the due date, you’ll see that the rent payments are in
arrears. Have been for a while, as a matter of fact.”
She understood him to mean that Red Hobart was
the one who owed money. Hobart eyeballed Reynolds
Reynolds didn’t give an inch. “Louise was too easygoing
in those matters. We can talk more about that
Hobart blinked first. He took his leave with stiff
formality, even tipping his John Deere cap in Judy’s
direction as she saw him out. When she returned to
the table, Reynolds indicated three sets of keys. “Here
are the keys the police put in my hands after the sheriff
completed the initial investigation.” Judy had used her
own key when she first arrived and had not considered
who closed up the outbuildings after Louise’s body
had been removed. “As you can see, these are marked
for the house, these for the barn, and these, here—”
Reynolds jiggled an old-fashioned ring with extralarge
keys—“for the garage and car. Harold had a nice
Monte Carlo that your aunt drove, I believe. Anyway,
it’s all yours now.”
“Thank you,” Judy said. Another thought occurred
to her. “Mr. Reynolds?”
The balding man looked up and peered at her
through his bifocals. He blinked. Judy was reminded
of a picture of an owl in glasses.
“Well, I wondered whether you knew if anyone
else had any keys. Any of the neighbors?”
18 The Gold Standard
Reynolds cleared his throat. “That I wouldn’t
know.” He looked back down at the papers in his hands.
“I nearly forgot this last item. The stock report.”
“Stocks?” Judy said. “I didn’t know Aunt Louise
owned any company stocks.”
Mr. Reynolds looked at her over the top of the
“Oh.” Judy felt her cheeks warm. “Just before you
came, out there in the orchard. . .that man—”
“Right. He said he’d been doing chores. Louise
said she had some help, but I didn’t pay attention at the
time.” Judy lowered her gaze to the chipped tabletop. “I
assumed my aunt had a handyman or something. Mr.
Wingate is renting Bryce Edwards’s farm, isn’t he?”
“That’s right. I’ve been working with Country
Properties LLC for some time, trying to encourage
Edwards to sell now that he’s moved into town.”
Judy’s shoulders sagged under the weight of the
cumbersome details. She hadn’t been given the luxury
of being alone to vent the depth of her grief. She
pulled in a breath and trudged on. “What’s Country
“Estate planners. Of course, any property sale out
here has to go through the town board. This farm is
out of city jurisdiction, young lady. The board has been
preoccupied lately with preserving farm land, and if you
don’t get this deal in quickly, the rumor is, you might
not be able to sell at all if there’s a moratorium.” He
leaned closer to her. “Which means a stop to building.
Which really means you won’t be able to score a tidy
The Gold Standard 19
profit.” Reynolds began to straighten out the papers on
the table. “Just remember, this is one hot property.”
Judy eyed him. She didn’t particularly care for his
little smile, little eyes, and bulging belly that rolled over
his pants and felt a need to end this discussion so she
could look at the papers. Alone. “Thank you. Anyway,
where do I sign, then, about taking over title?”
“Right here, young lady.” Reynolds pointed to
the yellow stickers attached at the proper lines. “And
here,” he said as he shuffled more papers, watching her
intently. “And here.”
When Judy finished, she extended the stick pen.
“Well, all right. Mr. Reynolds, I appreciate the house
call and all. Um, when I leave, who should I call about
taking care of the. . .stock?”
“Best to ask Wingate. He knows the place and has
been doing it regular already.” Reynolds stuffed papers
into the worn calfskin case. He nodded down toward
the Formica tabletop. “There’s my card. Call me when
you’re ready to make a decision about selling.”
Judy stood in the drive long after his taillights
disappeared. Purple twilight gradually made shadows
of the fence posts. A flock of sparrows settled on power
lines across the road. A knot formed in her stomach. I’ve
never felt so alone. At the sound of footsteps crunching
in the gravel behind her, she tensed and spun around.
“Oh, you scared me,” she said, recognizing her
neighbor. Judy removed her hand from her thudding
heart. “I apologize for sounding rude earlier. I really
am grateful for all you’ve done to help us out.”
“No need to apologize.” Hart Wingate smiled. “If
20 The Gold Standard
you need anything, don’t hesitate to let me know.”
“As a matter of fact, I wonder. . .if you have time,
that is, would you consider continuing to do the chores
while I’m gone? Or help me find someone I can hire? I
have to go home for a couple of weeks for my job. But
I think I’ll come back.”
“You’re a teacher, right?”
Judy nodded. “Yes. School’s out the first Friday in
They regarded the roosting birds for a quiet moment.
“I’m happy to help. Louise and I worked together
with the cattle. When you return I’d like to discuss our
agreement with you. Louise was an interesting woman.
We had some good conversations, and she taught me
a lot about respecting our heritage.” He smiled briefly
again. “Even though your aunt managed to ruffle some
feathers by her obsession with recycling, I’ll miss her.”
She couldn’t recall anything about a cattle deal in
the papers she’d just signed, but she was too exhausted
to think about it now. Three years she’d need to give.
Could she do that? What about her job? And what
did Hart mean, Louise was obsessed with recycling?
How could sorting one’s aluminum and newspaper
be considered obsessive? She and Louise naturally did
that at home in Lewiston. Didn’t anyone believe in
recycling out in the country?
Judy looked at Hart through a blur of tears. “Aunt
Louise gave up a lot to raise me. She barely got to spend
any time back here before she died. Being cut down at
fifty-four is no reward for the sacrifice she made on my
behalf. It all happened so fast, I hardly know how to
The Gold Standard 21
feel. All my aunt wanted was to come back here and live
out a peaceful life. I need to know why she died. Maybe
just to satisfy my own curiosity. Maybe so nothing
like this—this murder of an innocent woman—ever
happens to anyone else.”
Hart seemed lost in thought. “I can’t help you
there. I’m angry about what happened to Louise, I
admit, but I don’t know what I can do to help.”
Judy hugged her elbows tight. “That’s all right. I
shouldn’t be bothering you about my personal business
anyway. I’ll check into your cow deal. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t let me keep you from phoning your
boyfriend or anything like that.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Judy heard the words
tumble out of her mouth as though of their own volition.
What? She blinked. Graham was her boyfriend, wasn’t
he? Why would she deny it? She cleared her throat.
“At least, I’ve only been dating someone for a couple
of months. Graham’s been great. A shoulder for me to
lean on when I need him.”
“Apparently Louise didn’t see it that way. I was here
last week when that guy showed up. Louise ordered
him to turn right around and leave.”