By Billie A. Williams
Mystery/Suspense 298 pages
Cover art by Richard Stroud
Leona buttoned herself against the cold. Hat pulled close over her ears and neck. Turtle pulling into its shell, she recoiled into her coat against the December chill. This December was different than others. This December felt especially frigid. Thoughts of leaving security, family, familiar…thoughts of not just new neighborhood, not just new job, but a new country, the big unknown all assaulted her as if part of the frigid December weather. Leona's thoughts frozen in December's chill refused to budge from the worry path she was on. Frozen in the chill of dread. The dread of what if? The dread of where to start. Why? Why didn't they question the absence of Alka's letters earlier? Why didn't Leona question when Alka's style, her voice in the letters changed? Lovely cursive hand writing became static printed letters. Black ink on white paper. Words devoid of personality. Words Leona couldn't feel, empty of soul and voice and warmth. It was not Alka. Why hadn't she questioned and demanded, and worried then?
Crunch of bitter cold snow reminded Leona, her quest was milk and eggs. Puffs of breath suspended midair marked her trek. Like Hansel and Gretel's bread crumb trail, they would disappear. She wouldn't need to follow them back home. Her path was clear. Or--was it? If she went to America, if she went to House On Rime Falls, if the answer was there, what would it be? Wind whipped the tails of her coat against her. The coat stung her legs like a harsh leather strap. Punishment, she wondered. Punishment for her selfish thoughts for her own comfort and safety. Punishment for putting herself first perhaps?
Leona was glad to see Benton return. “I came to take down the scaffolding unless you aren’t finished with it yet. I didn’t mean to startle you. Is Mr. Jolly cooperating?”
Leona pushed a stray curl that had worked its way free from its tether behind her ear back where it belonged. “I’m fine. I just didn’t hear you approach.” She paused and smiled at Benton. He certainly was a handsome man. She couldn’t help but wonder about him and his life outside of The House on Rime Falls. “Mr. Jolly has been a perfect gentleman.” She put her hands on her hips and surveyed Mr. Jolly’s new wardrobe. “Well, he looks more presentable, but something is missing. I can’t figure out what it is, though.”
Benton scrutinized Mr. Jolly. “He looks fine to me. Oh, wait... his musical instrument...”
Leona hit her forehead with the heel of her hand. “Of course! I moved it to fix the neckline of his shirt, and forgot to replace it.”
“Let me get that.” Benton climbed the scaffolding and moved to replace the instrument. As he did, a gust of air from the huge figure nearly blew him off the scaffolding. He slid down from the scaffolding without climbing down the stair-like end. “Guess he expected you to replace it for him, since you moved it.” Benton laughed, but Leona didn’t hear any joyfulness in his laughter.
“He would have certainly been able to blow me off that contraption if he tried.” Leona doubted the mechanical man would have anything so sinister in mind. Indeed, he had no mind. He wasn’t alive.
A sour look came over Benton’s face. His eyes seemed to grow darker. “You be careful around these exhibits. Things aren’t always as they seem.”
“What do you mean?” Leona felt her sense of unease return.
“Just be careful. I better get this contraption taken apart. Then I’ll get you back to your quarters.”
Leona sensed what Benton said was the only answer she was going to get. He didn’t seem ready to reveal anything else. Or, perhaps it was the cameras and listening devices he hinted at earlier that stopped him from commenting further. She decided not to pursue her questions. She would, however, heed his warning. She busied herself putting her ingenious cabinet sewing room back together as a square box rather than an array of pieces of a sewing room.
Would she be able to keep it with her, or would someone take it to wherever it was stored? Would they also load their idea of what they thought she needed next? She wished she could plan the job and pick out her own yard goods and notions. She heaved a heavy sigh.
“You okay?” Benton’s face crinkled with concern. He must have heard her exasperated sigh.“I’m fine. Just doing too much thinking, I think.” That elicited a laugh. Leona felt better. It was good to laugh. She must do it more often. She promised herself she would find a way to just that.