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I’m currently hard at work on my third Hetty Fox cozy mystery. This is the first chapter in that effort. Any and all feedback is welcome.

~~~

“You weren’t supposed to come.” I kept my voice down and swept a nervous eye across the people walking beside me. Approaching my mid-sixties, I didn’t want anyone thinking I was babbling to myself—not even the nameless strangers proceeding down the Amtrak platform with me.

The source of my angst drifted along beside me. He claimed he was the ghost of my college sweetheart, Andrew Peters. Part of me suspected he was simply proof of my decaying mind.

Andrew grinned. “Hetty, you know I’m real and that you’d be lost without me.”

I gritted my teeth. “So you say.”

At least I wasn’t being haunted by an unfamiliar ghost. This one had the same dark eyes, dark hair, and killer smile as Andrew. On the other hand, during those lost years, I had developed gray hair, wrinkled skin, and fallen arches.

“You still look beautiful to me,” Andrew said.

That he knew my innermost thoughts only confirmed my suspicions. I wasn’t sure why or how,  but I’d invented him, an imaginary friend to accompany me through my golden years.

“Besides,” Andrew said, interrupting my thoughts, “You wouldn’t want me to spend the week cooped up with Blackie. Your cat hates me.”

I chuckled silently. That part was true. Blackie routinely hissed and slapped at Andrew. My cat’s reaction to my ghost was the only point I could think of  in favor of Andrew being real.

I’m Hetty Fox, by the way, a widow, who lives in a small town in downstate Illinois. Before that, I’d lived in Chicago, my hometown. Now, I was back and about to step through the Amtrak gates into my beloved city. My heart pounded with excitement at the thought of it.

“Which one is Eva?” Andrew asked scanning the people standing beyond the gate.

I turned my attention to the waiting crowd staring eagerly at the approaching mob.

My stride faltered. “I don’t see her.”

“Maybe she’s running late.”

I shook my head. “She’s always on time. It’s an obsession with her.”

“Maybe she got caught in traffic?”

“She’d have called.”

We stepped into the corridor. I swung my head from left to right. There was still no sign of her. Grabbing a deep breath, I lifted my chin and tried to ignore the worry taking root at the back of my mind. Being late was so unlike my friend.

Spotting a bench along the wall, I sat and pulled my cell phone from my purse.

“Eva,” I said when the call switched to voice mail.  “I’m at the station. Call me. Let me know what’s happening.”

“What do we do now?” Andrew asked.

“We wait.” I listened to what I’d just said and shook my head. “Correction, I wait. You should either go home or vanish.”

He laid a hand on the place his heart would be. “Hetty, you wound me.”

I huffed. Sometimes Andrew could be so juvenile, but why wouldn’t he be? He’d only just turned twenty when he died in a fiery car crash. I was devastated. It had taken me years to recover from his loss.

Ten more minutes passed without Eva turning up. Butterflies started up a nervous dance inside my stomach.

“Why don’t you call her again?” Andrew suggested.

I nodded and whipped out my phone, but again the call went unanswered. All I could do was leave another  message. “Eva, I’m still waiting. Is there a problem?”

Another five minutes passed.

I got to my feet. “If she were coming, she’d either be here by now, or she would have called to tell me what the problem is. I think I need to go to her place. Wait for her there.”

I grabbed the handle of my bag and set off with Andrew keeping pace beside me. Up we moved past the food courts with their mingled smells of pizza and hamburgers and the babble of their restless diners. Finally, we reached  the taxi stand, a dark hole of a place with cabs lined up while the heavy scent of diesel fumes wafted around them. The roar of speeding traffic bounced down from the street as did a visible mist from the pounding rain above.

Beside me, Andrew faded from sight. He never traveled in a car with me. I didn’t know if it was because of a lingering trauma from his fatal accident, or if it was physically impossible for him to be contained in a moving car. I’d never quite found the nerve to ask. On the other hand, since he was probably a product of my imagination, did it really matter?

A cab pulled forward. I yanked its door open and climbed in. I fed the driver Eva’s address. He grinned and gunned the gas, and like a bull released from a holding pen, we roared up the ramp and rushed east toward Lake Shore Drive. A spray of rainwater splashed around us from beneath our speeding tires. Then suddenly we came to a stop, caught by a red light on Michigan Avenue. I spotted the lion statues guarding the entrance to the Art Institute. Even from a block away, the sight delighted me. They were magnificent creatures.

As I gazed at them, I felt a rush of anticipation. Visiting the Art Institute had been one of the great joys of my Chicago years. I promised myself that I would stop in and revisit its delights during this trip.

My driver made some comment I couldn’t quite catch. From his accent, I figured he was probably Middle Eastern. I also suspected he was padding my bill by taking me the long way to the hotel. If I’d been driving, I would have shot straight north on LaSalle Street. Still, I didn’t protest his taking the more scenic route. I was delighting in the sights, and sounds, and smells of my old hometown.

The light changed. The cabbie floored the gas, We flew forward. The white-capped waves on this dreary May day loomed ahead of me, their dark hue adding to my unease over my missing friend.  We raced through Grant Park with its soaked lawns on either side, and then we turned north onto Lake Shore Drive. The driver took the turn quickly. I had to brace myself to keep from crashing against the car door. Then, at breakneck speed we shot through the heavy traffic toward the Gold Coast to the north.

Despite the crowded roadway and pounding rain, the driver made excellent time. We pulled up in front of my friend’s apartment building in just under fifteen minutes. I paid off the cabbie and stepped out. A doorman carrying an umbrella aloft came forward. His name tag identified him as Tony Spinoza. He was squarely built with dark hair and eyes. I nodded to him, “I’m here to visit Eva Whitstone.”

He pulled wide the door for me and wished me a very good day. I stepped into the stylish lobby and took the elevator up, exiting on the tenth floor.

“Miss me?” Andrew asked, suddenly appearing at my elbow.

I  gasped. “Would you cut that out? I don’t see why you can’t give me some kind of warning before popping out like that. You’re going to give me a coronary.”

He smiled. “You look fine to me. I’ll see you once you’re settled in,” he said, before disappearing again.

“No.” I snapped, but I was too late. The last thing I wanted was for him to make himself at home in Eva’s apartment. Then, I reminded myself he was nothing more than a figment of my imagination, and Eva would never see him. Squaring my shoulder, I released a long breath and made for my friend’s door. I knocked, but no one answered.  I rapped several more times, again without success.  After a few additional tries, I gave up and went in search of the building superintendent.

Thanks to directions from the doorman,  I finally found Harley Stokes in a cramped and cluttered basement apartment. “I’m sorry,” he said.  “We ain’t got no apartments to rent.”

“I’m not interested in renting from you.  I’m here to visit Eva Whitstone. She isn’t opening  her door. I’ve been trying to reach her for a very long time.  I’m worried. I think we should check on her.”

“Lady, I don’t know what I can do. If she won’t open the door for you, I doubt she’s gonna do it for me.”

“Please, can’t you check? I think something may be wrong.”

“Wait a minute.” He padded back  into his apartment and put out the cigarette he had left burning in a metal ashtray. “I’ll give her a call,” he said over his shoulder. “But that’s all I’ve got the right to do. I can’t let you go into her place.”

“Please, give me some credit. I’ve tried to phone her.”

He shot me a surly look, but his call went unanswered, too, as I knew it would.

“She must be out,” he grumbled

“If only I could be sure. She was supposed  to pick me up at the train station almost an hour ago.  She failed to show up. That’s not like her. I think something must be terribly wrong.”

“Tell you what, I’ll go bang on her door. I don’t think it will help, but she’s a good tenant. I like her, so I’ll give it a try.”

“I’m so very grateful.”

“After you,” he said, letting me lead the way. We trooped back to the elevator with me still dragging my suitcase behind me.  On reaching  Eva’s door, the man pounded on it. Being a large and heavily built gent, he made quite a racket. Across the hall, a door swung open. A tall, slender man with brilliantly white hair and a similarly colored goatee stepped  into the hall. “Is something  wrong?”

The super’s gaze swung his way. “This lady says she’s come to visit Eva.  Do you know if she’s  in?”

The neighbor frowned. “I don’t recall hearing her go out.”

“And you are?”  I asked.

“ Alejandro Diega,” he said, extending his hand. “It’s very nice to meet you.” He was tall, and elegantly dressed in a light gray suit, and was exceedingly handsome.

I returned his greeting and introduced myself. “She didn’t by any chance keep a key with you?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, she did not.”

“I’m not opening this apartment door without some authorization,” Stokes said.

Diega nodded slightly. “I’m sorry I can’t be of assistance. But she has a son. Perhaps, he has a key?”

“ I don’t know how to reach him,”  the super said.

“That’s quite all right,” Diega answered. “I have his phone number.”

And so within half an hour, Eva’s son, Brian Whitstone, joined us, looking flushed and worried. He was a large man, in his early forties, and was built much as his father had been. After greeting me warmly, he asked, “What’s this about wanting to get into Mother’s apartment? What’s going on?”

I explained about my intended visit and Eva’s failure to meet me at the train station. “Since then I haven’t been able to raise her, nor has she returned any of my calls. I’m terribly worried.”

Brian nodded, “You’re right. That is decidedly not like my mother.” He inserted the key in the door and opened it. The apartment lay dark and silent before us. “Mom?” he called out. There was no answer.

“Wait here,” he said. That sounded like a good plan to me. Both the super and Diaga remained just inside the apartment door with me.

“You’re my witnesses,” Stokes babbled, wide-eyed. “I didn’t let you in, you know. It’s not my fault we’re standing inside Mrs. Whitstone’s apartment.”

“Yes, yes,” I replied. “No one can blame you for this. It’s entirely down to Brian and me.”

I glanced about the living room and noted that nothing appeared to have been disturbed.

Ahead of me, Brian continued moving through the apartment. When he came to the entrance to his mother’s study, he turned and came to an instant halt. His hand slammed to his chest; his expression darkened. “Mother,” he wailed, “what have they done to you?”

 

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