Shadow of an Angel

Chapter One

Things got off to a rotten start when I found Cousin Otto dead in the ladies' room.

Of course, at first I didn't know it was Cousin Otto, and I certainly didn't know he was dead! All I could see were those big brown shoes in the stall next to mine when I bent to retrieve a roll of bathroom paper making a pathway across the floor. (Apparently the people responsible for the upkeep of historic Holley Hall had never thought to replace the broken tissue spindle.)

My neighbor's shoes were at least size twelve, scuffed at the toes, and obviously not on intimate terms with a buffing brush. I peeked again. Blue nylon socks stretched beneath creased khaki trousers. Had I wandered into the men's room by mistake? Gasping, I drew up my feet before I remembered seeing the tampon dispenser on the wall when I came in. Unless nature had taken a drastic turn, I was in the right place.

The man next door was terribly still. Did he know I knew? He was mortified, naturally. Maybe if I stayed where I was for a few minutes, it would give him a chance to escape.

It was then I noticed the small gold earring—or it looked like an earring—wedged in the corner of my stall. Whoever had dropped it would probably be glad to have it back, and I snatched up the trinket and put it in my shirt pocket, intending to turn it in to the academy's hostess later.

Surely by now the man to my left would realize he'd made a really big "oops!" and vamoose. I sat, afraid to breathe. Go on, I urged under my breath. Get out!

Nothing. Well, I couldn't wait forever. To heck with him!

It wasn't until I was washing my hands that I noticed the reflection in the mirror. Beneath the side of the stall toward the sink, the knuckles of a large hand—a man's hand—hung, barely brushing the floor. I've heard of being embarrassed to death, but this was going to the extreme.

Forgetting decorum, I pounded on the stall. "Are you all right? Do you need help?

"Listen, we all make mistakes," I persisted. "I'll leave if you like, but please answer me. Is anything wrong? Are you sick?"

Still no answer. Beneath the stall's door I saw the feet in the same slightly turned in position, the arm dangled in a most unnatural way. Not a good sign.

"There's a man in the ladies' room," I announced to Gertrude Whitmire, who was at the reception desk that day. "I'm afraid something's wrong with him; he's not moving."

She skewered me with her sharp blue eyes. This woman had taught history to generations—including mine. Wordy Gerty, we called her. She was history, and I knew she suffered no shilly-shallying.

"What do you mean, he's not moving?" She was on her feet and halfway down the hallway before I caught up with her.

"In that last stall," I directed. "I can't get him to answer."

The metal door trembled under the pressure of her pounding. "Who's in there?" the woman demanded in a voice loud enough to bring even the comatose to attention, but there was no reply.

"Stall's locked," she informed me. "You'll have to crawl under."

"Me? I can't do that!"

I had come to Angel Heights, the home of my fore bearers, to seek spiritual renewal in a peaceful retreat after my husband's sudden death and, I hoped, to smooth an uneasy relationship with my grandmother. This was not what I had in mind.

"Yes, you can. You'll have to." Gertrude Whitmire patted her ample hips as if to explain why I would be