Very Veggie Murder: Book 3 in Papa Pacelli's Pizzeria Series, page 3
He was looking at her with some concern, and she realized that he was asking her if she was safe to drive. “I’m okay,” she said. Her voice came out hoarsely, so she cleared her throat before adding, “I’ll follow you.”
As they pulled out of the parking lot, Ellie realized that alone in the car with her thoughts might not have been the best place for her to be. She couldn’t get her earlier conversation with Danny out of her head. Whoever had killed him would have had only minutes to do it—barely half an hour had passed between when she spoke to him on the phone and when she arrived at the diner. It seemed surreal to think that less than two hours ago, he had been alive and well. Now he was just gone. A terrible thought surfaced. What was she going to tell Darlene?
The drive to the sheriff’s department and subsequent walk to Sheriff Ward’s office all happened in a blur. Before she knew it, she found herself sitting silently across from him while he typed something into his decade-old computer.
“Can I get you anything to drink before we begin?” he asked her after a moment.
“No thanks,” she said. “Go ahead. I’m ready to answer your questions.”
“Well, let’s start with how well you knew the deceased,” he said. “He’s a family friend, you said?”
She nodded. “I didn’t know him very well. He came over for dinner last night. I have some family from Virginia visiting, and he was an old friend of my cousin’s.”
“Does he have any enemies that you know of? Anyone who would want to hurt him?”
“I don’t know. I barely knew him.”
Their conversation continued like that for a while; he asked her questions that she just didn’t have the answers to, or had nothing but unhelpful answers to. It wasn’t until they reached the subject of why exactly she had been meeting him at the diner that things began to get more interesting. Though she would have rather kept it a secret, she knew that she had no choice but to show him the note that she had found under the bookshelf in her grandfather’s study. He read through it with interest.
“So the two of you were meeting because he had some information about who your grandfather was blackmailing?” he asked.
“Yes. But he wanted to tell me in person.” She winced. “I’m the one who suggested the diner, because it’s right outside of town and he’d be able to get back to Benton Harbor quickly. If it wasn’t for me, he might still be alive.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked, his steely eyes meeting hers curiously.
“Well, if we had met somewhere else, he wouldn’t have been in that parking lot at the wrong time, would he?” she said.
“Hmm.” He put the note down. “So you think his death was random, and not related to this letter at all?”
“Well, I—” She blinked. That Danny had been killed because of what she had asked him to do hadn’t occurred to her. “If he was killed because he was asking questions about my grandfather, then that means it’s even more my fault.” Tears began to well in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Pacelli, I wasn’t trying to upset you.” He pushed a box of tissues toward her, accidentally knocking one of the picture frames on his desk over with his elbow as he did. Ellie glanced down to see a photo of a younger version of him with his arm around a gorgeous red-haired woman. They were standing on the beach, both of them smiling broadly.
“Is that your wife?” she asked, dabbing at her eyes, glad for the distraction. A beat of silence followed, and she suddenly remembered that Shannon, Russell’s sister-in-law, had told her that he was single.
“Yes,” he said shortly, picking up the picture frame and setting it upright again. “She passed away five years ago.”
“Oh… I’m so sorry,” she said. She felt terrible. How had she managed to cause even more suffering today?
“It’s fine.” He gazed at the picture for a long moment. “She was murdered. We never found the killer.”
Ellie didn’t know what to say to this. Saying sorry again wouldn’t have covered it, not even close. It does explain some things about him, she thought. Like why he’s so obsessed with his work.
“Anyway,” he said, clearing his throat. “I think we’ve covered all we can for today. I’ll be in touch if we need to ask you anything else. You still have my card?” He paused and she nodded. She had put all of his contact information on her phone weeks ago. “Good. If you remember anything or find out anything else about who might have written this letter to your grandfather, give me a call immediately. I’m going to do everything in my power to get justice for Danny Kork.”
Telling Darlene about what had happened to Danny was even harder than Ellie imagined. She had never been good at being the bearer of bad news, and what had happened to her cousin’s lifelong friend was worse than any news that she had ever had to break to someone before. She drove aimlessly for a long time before going home, trying to screw up her courage and figure out what, exactly, she was going to say.
Her news was met by stunned silence. The entire family—Nonna, Uncle Toby, Aunt Kathy, and Darlene—was seated in the living room, staring up at her in shock. Unable to look at their faces, she glanced instead toward Bunny. Even the dog seemed subdued; her normally perked ears were down flat against her head, and she didn’t so much as twitch her tail when her owner looked at her.
“This can’t be real,” Darlene said at last, her voice breaking on the last word. She began crying, and the papillon hurried over to try and comfort her. Ellie closed her eyes, overcome with emotion herself. Underneath the grief, guilt niggled at her. She hadn’t mentioned her true reason for meeting Danny at the diner, nor the photocopy of the letter to her grandfather that was currently in her purse—Russell had kept the original. Keeping secrets from her family wasn’t the right thing to do, but she knew that revealing the letter would just make everything worse.
The next few days were hard on everybody. The Pacelli house was unusually quiet and glum, and even Ellie’s work at the pizzeria began to suffer. When she burnt her third pizza in a row the next Tuesday, Ellie threw down her oven mitts, yanked off her apron, and swept her purse off the counter.
“I’m leaving early,” she announced to her employees before pushing her way through the staff door in the back and heading toward her car.
Driving aimlessly through town didn’t accomplish anything other than serving to help her focus. Her guilt over Danny’s death hadn’t receded at all over the previous days; if anything, it had grown. She was certain that Danny would still be alive if it wasn’t for her. If she had never found that letter under the bookshelf, or if she had just crumpled it up and thrown it away instead of reading it, none of this would have happened. She was responsible for his death just as surely as if she had been the one to hit him on the head.
What made the guilt even worse was the incessant, nagging curiosity. What had he found out about her grandfather? What secret could have been grave enough to drive someone to murder to stop it from getting out? She kept telling herself that it didn’t matter; a man was dead, and that was a lot more important than anything Arthur Pacelli might have been doing. She had to wipe the letter from her mind; there would be no solving the mystery now, anyway, and it was disrespectful to Danny to keep dwelling on it.
Is it, though? she wondered as she followed the road up the coast. He died finding out who wrote my grandfather that letter. Wouldn’t it be wrong to let everything he did go to waste? Besides, if I find out who was accusing Papa of blackmail, chances are I also find out who killed Danny.
That thought was a revelation to her, and her mind cleared more than it had been in days. She knew what she had to do. Driving around moping wasn’t helping anyone, but digging through her grandfather’s past just might lead her straight to the killer.
Ellie had no idea where to start looking herself, but she knew just who would. Her friend Shannon Ward was a journalist, and never turned down the chance to tear apart a mystery. The only problem was, she was married to the sher
The answer turned out to be a resounding yes.
“It’s not like we’d be doing anything wrong,” her friend said, her eyes sparkling at the thought of a mystery to solve. “You’re just digging into your family’s past, right?”
“Right.” Ellie took a sip of her caramel coconut mocha. They were sitting in a tiny café with a view of the harbor. It was only a few buildings down from the sheriff’s department.
“I mean, I’m not going to lie to James if he asks me directly, but I can’t imagine he would,” Shannon continued. “I agree with you that it’s probably better that Russell doesn’t know that we’re looking into this. I love the guy, but he can be a bit overbearing at times. I’m just glad I married the easygoing one.”
Ellie chuckled. It was true that the two brothers couldn’t be more different, but she wasn’t exactly sure she would consider James easygoing, not after watching him single-handedly save all three of them from certain death only weeks ago.
“So, where do you want to start?” her friend asked.
“I was hoping you would have an idea,” she admitted.
“Well, what exactly do you want to look for first?”
“I guess I just want to see if there are any news articles or reports about him that might tip me off to who wrote him the letter. He ran the paper mill for years, so there must be something about him.”
“We can do that. And we’re looking for someone whose name starts with a ‘T’? First or last name?” the journalist asked.
The pizzeria manager blinked. She hadn’t thought of that. She had just assumed that whoever had signed the note had used the initial from their first name. It could just as easily have been from their last name.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Either, I suppose.”
“So we’re going to look through old newspaper articles for someone with a first or last name that starts with the letter ‘T’—assuming the author of the note wasn’t using some sort of nickname, of course—who might have had some sort of contact with your grandfather, and then, if we find something, figure out why your grandfather was blackmailing him or her?”
“That’s about it,” Ellie said, feeling embarrassed. What had she been thinking? This would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. No, it would be like looking for a specific needle in a pile of needles. Nearly impossible.
“Sounds like fun,” Shannon said with a grin.
They spent the rest of the evening in the library going through archived newspaper articles. Ellie was hit with the enormity of their project when Shannon pointed out that Arthur Pacelli had lived in Kittiport his entire life, other than for the years he was at college. Assuming that he didn’t meet ‘T’ until he returned home from the university, that still left them almost sixty years of articles to go through.
The two women sat side by side, scanning through articles for any mention of the name “Arthur,” or “Pacelli,” until the library began to close. They promised to meet again next time they both were free to continue their search, but despite her friend’s support, Ellie walked out of the building feeling defeated. What did I expect? she wondered. Whatever happened between my grandfather and the person he was supposedly blackmailing probably never made it into the papers. Still, she was resolved to keep searching; at the very least, it gave her something to do, and anything was better than feeling useless.
On her way home, she stopped to check on the pizzeria. Rose and Clara seemed to have everything under control, but she still apologized for leaving so suddenly earlier.
“It’s fine, Ms. Pacelli,” Rose said. “It’s really messed up that that guy you knew was killed. I’d be upset too, if it happened to someone I knew.”
“Well, thanks for understanding. It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure.” She sighed, and decided to change the subject. “How did we do on sales today?”
“Not bad, though we did have one guy order a pizza and never show up to get it. Do you want to take it home? It’s a supreme, and neither Clara nor I likes peppers.”
“Sure. It’ll save me from figuring out dinner,” Ellie said, grateful for the turn in luck. She tried not to eat pizza at home more often than she had to, since she had it almost every day at the pizzeria anyway, but she wasn’t in the mood to cook tonight. She was more than happy to grab the pizza box and head home, and hope that somehow tomorrow would be a better day.
She parked her car beside Darlene’s and sat outside for a moment, not yet ready to go in and face the glum silence that she knew she would find inside the house. To delay going in for as long as she could, she decided to trudge back down the driveway and check the mail, which was delivered in the evenings. Her grandmother was in the habit of waiting until morning to get it, which drove Ellie, who always wanted to see what was in it immediately, crazy.
She opened the mailbox, and sure enough there was a stack of mail still inside. She took it out and flipped idly through it as she walked back toward the house. Plenty of bills, some advertisements; nothing she was particularly interested in. It wasn’t until she reached the last item that she paused, coming to a halt in the middle of the driveway. It was a piece of paper, folded up and taped, but not in an envelope, with her name scribbled on the front in pen. Frowning, she slit the tape with her thumbnail and opened it.
What happened to your friend will happen to you, too, if you continue searching for the truth. This is your only warning.
Ellie’s fingers started shaking, and she nearly dropped the note. Clutching it more tightly in one hand, she used the other hand to dig around in her purse until she found her phone. It took her more than one try to pull up Russell Ward’s name in her contacts list, but when she finally got it, she didn’t hesitate to press the call button.
She waited for him on the porch, Bunny leashed and at her side. Still reluctant to involve her family more than she had to—increasingly, she was beginning to be concerned for their safety if they learned about the blackmail—after calling the sheriff, she had stepped indoors only long enough to tell her family that she was taking the dog for a walk before leaving again, the papillon in tow. It was another half-truth that she felt guilty about, but she told herself it was for their safety. She didn’t want to risk dragging any of them into something dangerous.
Russell parked behind her car, and she hurried to meet him before he could slam his door shut. She thrust the note into his hands, wanting nothing more to do with it.
“I’ll have a specialist analyze the handwriting,” he told her after reading it through.
“You don’t think it’s from the same person?” she asked, shocked.
“Of course I do, but an evaluation from a handwriting analyst is more likely to hold up in court than a hunch from the sheriff,” he pointed out gently. “Besides, an analyst may be able to pick up nuances in the handwriting that could tell whether the two letters were written within a short time span of each other or not. Handwriting changes as a person ages.”
Ellie realized that this could possibly give her a clue as to when the first letter was written. If Sheriff Ward would be able to share any of that information with her, that was.
“Oh. I had no idea.” She hesitated, glancing back at the house where three generations of her family sat. “Do… do you think we’re in danger here?”
The sheriff considered this question carefully, looking first down at the letter, then at her. When he spoke, it wasn’t to
“Do you plan on heeding this warning?”
She hesitated, thinking back to her and Shannon’s investigation in the library less than an hour before. He seemed to take her silence as a no.
“Then yes, Ms. Pacelli. I do think you are in danger. It’s safe to assume that this person has already killed once, and he or she may just be desperate enough to do it again.”
When Ellie took Bunny outside the next morning, she was comforted by the sight of a police cruiser driving by. She waved, and the person inside waved back before speeding up and heading down the road. Sheriff Ward had told her that he would schedule extra patrols by her house, and she was glad to see that he was already keeping his promise.
The note in her mailbox the day before had struck a chord deep inside her. Before finding it, she had never even considered that she might be in danger, or that what she was doing might put her family in danger. Well, it’s not like this person would have any way to know what Shannon and I were doing at the library, she reasoned. Whoever left the letter was probably clueless about that. Danny must have mentioned her name when he was asking questions, that’s all. As long as I don’t go around asking the same questions, I should be okay… right?
Still, she was happy for the visible presence of the deputies. She hoped that they would continue driving by her house throughout the day, but she wasn’t particularly worried about her nonna, not with her other relatives in the house as well. There was safety in numbers, after all.
Once Bunny was done with her business, the two of them went back inside and Ellie headed to the study to give Marlowe her breakfast. On her way out, she bumped into Darlene.
“I was just coming to find you,” her cousin said. She was twisting her wedding ring around her finger, something that Ellie had noticed that she was prone to doing when she was feeling emotional.
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