The spirit of Ruth MacKenzie was visible everywhere in her shop except her body.
Any other Thursday morning for forty years found Ruth at her desk on the mezzanine level above the display floor of Ruth's Reveries, the largest and best stocked antique store in the tiny foothill town of Eden Ridge. On this bright morning in late May, she was not at her desk. Instead she lay sprawled beside it, legs and arms frozen at grotesque angles, forming the signature pose of a violent death.
A pool of blood, black after hours in the open air, formed an ugly halo around her paper-white hair. The once-precious fluid stained the rolled collar of her favorite taupe cashmere sweater. Her eyes, open and glazed, stared unseeing over her shoulder as though she still watched with hope for customers who, like her, graced their present lives with the beauty and craft found in commonplace items from the past.
A few minutes past 8:30 a.m., the bells over the entrance door chimed, but Ruth did not hear them. A retired couple entered and strolled the aisles, perusing the aged and rare items lining the many shelves of the cavernous store. The woman was drawn to Ruth's Victorian-era display cabinets fashioned from hand-carved oak and walnut. Within each, shelves of marble quarried in far-off lands showcased set after set of delicate, floral-patterned china. The man stopped near the door, mesmerized by a large, multi-shelved display Ruth had called "The Boy Trap."
Locked behind beveled glass panels, the crowded shelves offered dozens of items selected to appeal to males of every age. One shelf overflowed with knives and razors, while another bore box after box of patches, badges, buttons, and medals. Boy Scout merit emblems and detective's shields lay in tight formation with posthumous Purple Hearts surrendered by widows who could not stand to wet the cameo of General Washington with one more tear.
"Hello?" the woman called out. "Could someone give me a price on this?" She pointed to a lone Blue Willow gravy boat, hoping to replace the one shattered long ago by her now-grown son. "The cabinet's locked. Can someone help me?"
Such a couple ringing the bells twenty-four hours earlier would have enjoyed Ruth's famous treatment. She would descend the steps from the mezzanine with a large, clanking key ring in hand, bidding good day and offering tea. As she passed The Boy Trap, she would unlock it and smile at the man, her quick gait and bright eyes belying her seventy-plus years on earth and four decades as a savvy businesswoman. Opening the china hutch, she would chat cheerfully with the woman, certain of ringing up the full asking price for the gravy boat after throwing in a well-worn camp knife at half-price.
Hearing no answer, the woman sighed and made for the door, silently motioning her husband to follow. He nearly protested, spying a vintage Buck skinner he coveted, but fell in line and followed his wife, again setting the bells ringing.
Ruth would have fired any clerk who offered such shoddy service.
Outside, the man and woman squinted against the bright morning sunlight reflecting off the clean sidewalks and shop windows of the downtown stretch known as Secondhand Alley. The man started the car and entered traffic on Ridgeway Boulevard as the woman consulted the Eden Ridge Chamber of Commerce Visitor's Map. The Ridgeway, as locals called it, climbed from the city of Bidwell in the valley along foothill canyons through several small old towns like Eden Ridge. Thirty miles away and two thousand feet higher up the mountain, Ridgeway joined the main highway leading to the summit of the Sierra Nevada range and the rich playgrounds of Lake Tahoe.
The couple rode slowly through the tourist stretch of town past the many antique and secondhand outlets, interspersed with gift shops and coffee bars, all beckoning the couple to stop and sample the wares. Originally a Gold Rush mining camp, the town flourished and faltered through the eras of American history, turning to timber once the gold ran out, then slowly fading into obscurity and senescence as a haven for retired Californians of modest means. Now the natural resource of Eden Ridge was its rich vein of antiques, and this trade was plied with all the fervor hopeful miners once devoted to their pans and dredges.
At the north end of downtown Eden Ridge, two miles up Ridgeway from Ruth's, the woman pointed to the entrance of the Wagon Wheel Coffee Shop. The man nodded and pulled in as his wife checked her phone and giggled at the top review for the restaurant, still family owned and offering the same menu an enterprising grandfather penned in the 1960s.
It read: “If you're a fan of the cholesterol-and-salt-laden coffee shop fare that built mid-twentieth-century America, and helped kill those who built it, the Wagon Wheel is the place for you.”
At 9:15 a.m., a large black Ford Crown Victoria pulled up to the curb at Ruth's Reveries. Travis Page, owner of the Eden Ridge Cab and Limousine Service, parked and accepted payment from his fare.
A tall and imposing man in a black canvas kilt, boots, and a cleric's collar opened the car door and stepped into the sunshine. He waved to the cabbie, slipped his cell phone into a cargo pocket, and hurried to the door.
Nearby pedestrians stared at the unfamiliar man as Travis pulled away. After two years and still considered a newcomer to Eden Ridge, Alan Wright continued to turn the heads of longtime locals, for his size and odd dress as much as his ruddy, friendly face and purposeful stride.
Alan pulled the door to Ruth's Reveries with too much muscle, sending it flying open and banging the string of bells against the tempered glass, announcing his entrance with an explosion of metallic jangles. He stopped and eyed The Boy Trap as he called out to his friend, "Ruth? Hey, Ruth. Sorry I'm late, but I forgot to... Ruth?"
He glanced over the tops of the high shelves and listened for her voice. After a moment of silence, he took the steps to the mezzanine two by two, thinking he might find her from the vantage point he jokingly called "The Crow's Nest."
"Hey, Ruth? I know you said come at nine, but really it's not ..."
Alan's lungs suddenly lacked the air needed to speak his next word. His bearded grin slowly melted into an open-mouthed frown. Breath came shallow and halting as tears welled in his eyes.
He wiped his cheeks and glanced around the room, reading a story of struggle. Half the chessmen of ivory and ebony from a set on her desk had been scattered and now lay about her like defeated guards. A vintage brass fireplace tool set was toppled: the stand, tongs, broom, and shovel in a heap like a game of Pick-up sticks. The poker was missing. Against the back wall, the door of a large antique Eagle safe stood open, keys still in the lock. A steel shelf divided the space in two sections, both empty.
Staring again, Alan's heart rejected the truth, that the ashen, rigid face before him was the death mask of his lively, pink-cheeked friend. For a brief second his body screamed to act, but the urge to save her flickered and faded. He knew a dead woman when he saw one.
He'd seen another not many years before.