Is there any way this could be a different Donald Wickerson?” Maggie Grady asked as she and Ryan Summerour sat drinking coffee. “One who doesn’t seem to kill the women who fall in love with him?”
It was the Christmas season at Pie in the Sky, a pie shop near the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina. Temperatures had dipped obligingly low for holiday festivities and shoppers. A snowstorm had added a powdery white dusting to rooftops and trees. It was a perfect Christmas-card scene.
Except for one thing.
Maggie’s Aunt Clara seemed to be smitten with a man who might be responsible for the deaths of each of his six wives.
“I don’t think there’s any mistake. I’ve done my research.”
Ryan owned and operated his family’s business, the Durham Weekly newspaper. He’d first received a tip about Donald Wickerson from a friend in Georgia about six months ago. Since then he’d followed other newspaper stories about the man they’d dubbed the Black Widower, who had now moved to North Carolina.
He’d known about Wickerson long before Aunt Clara had met him at the library a few months before. He just never expected her to meet and fall for the man.
Maggie shook her head in frustration. Her short brown hair flew around her pretty face. She closed her green eyes—the same color as her aunt’s.
“I can’t believe it. Just as I get my life settled, Aunt Clara goes off the deep end for some ‘black widower.’ It’s crazy.”
“Give her a break. She’s been alone for a long time. She’s looking for someone special in her life. My father would be the same way if he met someone who was interested in golf and didn’t mind him trumpeting his political views every five minutes. I don’t know how my mother lived with him.”
Ryan ran his hand through his dark-blond hair. Instead of calming it down, the gesture made the ends curlier. He squinted at a stack of old newspaper articles from around the state, selecting one from the top, and holding it an arm’s length away from his blue eyes. He was in his forties, and fighting the need to wear glasses.
“You’re going to have to give in and get glasses.” Maggie watched him with a smile. “If you hold papers any farther from your face when you read, you’ll go cross-eyed.”
Maggie and Ryan had only been a couple for a few weeks—they’d met after Maggie moved back home to Durham earlier in the fall. It had been a difficult transition settling back into small-town life since she’d spent the past ten years working in New York, but meeting Ryan had helped.
It was a good relationship, after they’d worked out the kinks. They’d met under unfortunate circumstances. Ryan had wanted to write a story about her for the Durham Weekly, but it hadn’t been very flattering given that she’d come home in a firestorm after being fired from her job for embezzlement.
But they’d clicked soon after. They seemed to have a lot in common, despite the differences in their choice of work. They’d both graduated from Duke University. They’d both grown up here and had become part of family-owned businesses.
“Okay, let’s just focus on what we can do to keep your aunt from being Donald’s next victim.”
“I thought you were going to write about him in the paper?” Maggie got up to start cleaning the pie shop. It was almost six, closing time.
There had been a flurry of activity earlier, before the snow had started falling. People liked to load up on extra food before it snowed. After the white stuff was on the ground, they wanted to stay inside, make popcorn, and drink hot chocolate. “I want to write about him, but I can’t use his real name. After the first article came out in my friend’s newspaper, his lawyer threatened to sue. I’ve been careful. I can’t afford a big lawsuit. He has a lot more money than I do since he keeps inheriting from his dead wives.”
He got up and took their coffee cups to the kitchen. Maggie followed him to get the mop. The dark-blue tile floor in the eating area of Pie in the Sky was excellent for hiding coffee stains from customers.
But she still knew they were there.
“Have you talked to Frank about it?”
Frank Waters was a Durham homicide detective who’d helped Ryan with a few other articles he’d written in the ten years he’d been running the paper. Frank was friends with Ryan’s father, Garrett, who’d run the paper before him.
“There’s nothing he can do.” Ryan put the cups and other dishes he found into the dishwasher in the kitchen. “Technically, Donald hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s been investigated after each of his wives’ deaths—they never find anything. All of their deaths
were ruled accidents. Frank warned me about using Donald’s real name. That’s about it.”
Maggie viciously rammed the mop into the wringer on the bucket. “Well, I’m not standing around waiting until Donald ‘accidentally’ kills Aunt Clara. I just got her back in my life again. I’m not losing her to some lucky serial killer who preys on women with a little money and property.”
She’d been trying to find some way to broach the subject with her aunt to warn her of his intentions, but she still hadn’t found the right moment, or the right way to go about it.
The front door chimed, letting them know someone had come in.
“Yoo-hoo!” Aunt Clara called from the front. “Is anyone here? I know it’s closing time, but we’d like some coffee, please!”
Maggie peeked around the corner of the service window between the kitchen and the front shop area. “He’s with her. We’ll have to table this discussion until later.”
“There you are!” Aunt Clara’s merry voice matched the holiday decorations and the twinkling lights around the pie shop. “I was beginning to wonder what a person had to do to get some service in this joint.”
Her aunt giggled as she held Donald’s hand, which made Maggie cringe. Clara’s wrinkled face was still pretty, with its slight blush and sharp green eyes. In her youth, red hair had flowed softly around
her shoulders. Now that she was older, she cut and dyed her hair, making it a strange, orange-colored fringe of sorts that still framed her face.
“Well, some customers can be very annoying,” Maggie joked, quickly shooting a pointed glare at Donald, who didn’t seem to notice.
It was hard to keep from turning to Donald and accusing him of preying on her aunt, but it seemed she had no choice but to be amiable since she had no real proof that he’d done anything wrong.
At least not yet.
Maggie spared them a smile as she brought out two cups of coffee. “What are you two up to?”
“We’re back from a wonderful program about the history of Christmas at the library. Donald said he wanted to try our Marvelous Mince pie.”
Donald smiled and kissed Clara’s hand. “That’s right. Your pretty little aunt convinced me that her mincemeat pie is as good as my mother’s used to be. I have my doubts. Clara can be quite persuasive.”
Maggie wanted to slap Donald and tell him to keep his hands off her aunt.
But what if Ryan was wrong? What if Donald was her aunt’s last chance at happiness?
Donald certainly didn’t look like a killer. He was tall and handsome for an older man. He reminded her of a model for an ad selling flannel shirts and boots. He had that rugged, outdoor quality to him.
She couldn’t ruin a possible chance for her aunt’s happiness without hard proof. “My aunt makes a mean mincemeat pie. I’ll be happy to get you a slice. Anything for you, Aunt Clara?”
“Yes, honey. I’ll take a slice of the coconut custard. It’s named after me. I feel guilty if I don’t eat some once in a while. Not too much—I don’t want to put on any weight.”
Donald stared into her eyes. “You have such a trim little figure. I’m sure you don’t have to worry about it, Clara. Now, me, on the other hand, I have to be careful or what’s left of my muscle will go right to fat.”
Maggie wished she were charmed by how cute they were together as he patted his flat stomach. Aunt Clara beamed at him adoringly.
It was hard to look at the two of them together without thinking about those other women who’d once thought he was charming.
Maggie hurried back into the kitchen to get the slices of pie.
“You have to tell her.” Ryan had already dished out some mincemeat pie for her. “She has to know.”
“What would I say? ‘Ryan thinks the man you’re dating is a killer’? She’d ask how you know. You don’t really have that answer.”
“We could show her the old newspaper clippings.”
Maggie thought about it as she sliced Clara’s Coconut Cream pie for her aunt. “Maybe that would
work. I could accidentally leave your file open with the clippings on the kitchen table at home.”
Ryan scoffed at that. “That’s going to be better than telling her?”
“It would present the evidence you have at the same time as the accusation.” Maggie closed up the pies and put them back into the refrigerator. She picked up a pie plate in each hand. “She doesn’t know anything about this. She hasn’t made the connection yet between your articles and Donald. I don’t want to just blurt it out.”
Ryan put a fork on each plate. “If you’re going to do that, I think you should do it here. We could set something up like we’re looking at the file when she walks in.”
“How is that better?”
He shrugged. “It would be safer. I’m worried what her reaction will be, aren’t you? She should know the truth, but I don’t want her to run to him for comfort.”
“And if she chooses to go out with him anyway and hates me for bringing the whole thing up?”
“She’s not going to hate you for saving her life. She might not like it at first, but she’ll forgive you later. I’ll bet the women Donald killed would have wanted someone in their family to do as much for them.”
Maggie rolled her eyes at the idea and took the pie out to Aunt Clara and Donald.
“Thank you so much, Maggie.” Donald’s smile
seemed warm and genuine as he took the pie from her. “Your aunt has told me all about you. I look forward to furthering our acquaintance in the future.”
“Me too.” Maggie moved away to continue closing down the pie shop for the night. She wished he wasn’t trying so hard to be charming. It made it hard to dislike him. Either he was innocent or he had his act down perfectly.
“Sit with us for a minute.” Her aunt pulled out a new dark-blue chair for her. “Everything looks so wonderful in here now that the remodeling is done.”
The entire shop had recently received a much-needed face-lift, playing up Pie in the Sky’s history, and its family ties to Duke University. The dark-blue school colors were echoed in the new seat covers, tile floor, and counter. The old, flat ceiling lights had been replaced by coffee-cup-shaped lights. Maggie had hung old photos taken at the school and at Pie in the Sky. It was a great touch.
Maggie didn’t want to refuse her aunt. It was important to maintain her relationship with Aunt Clara through this. Even if she was worried about Donald, alienating Aunt Clara would be like handing her over to the man.
So she sat.
“Your aunt tells me you used to work in New York City.” Donald carefully chewed his pie as he spoke.
He was certainly neat and had excellent manners—all the better to snag the ladies and kill them, she supposed.
Ryan had said that this man preyed on older women who were well off and alone. Maybe she could say something to warn him off, to make sure he understood how things were. If he was even thinking about killing her aunt to get her money and property, he needed to think again.
“Now that I’m Aunt Clara’s full partner in the pie shop, it’s nice to see some new things done around here.”
“Yes,” Aunt Clara chimed in. “Maggie and I work very well together. Of course, there’s going to come a time when being here five days a week at five thirty in the morning might get to be too much for me. I’m glad I’ll have her to take over.”
Maggie was surprised by her aunt’s words. “You’ve never said anything about retiring. Is something wrong?”
“No, of course not,” Clara denied. “I’m only thinking about the future.”
“Your aunt has worked hard her whole life, from what she’s told me,” Donald intervened. “You have to expect she might want a nice, long rest. Maybe in the Bahamas, or Mexico. It would be good to get away from these harsh winters near the mountains.”
“Aunt Clara loves winter.” Maggie mangled the dish towel she held. “She loves snow and ice. And she loves working at Pie in the Sky.”
“You’re absolutely right.” Aunt Clara put her hand on Maggie’s. “And I’m not talking about right now or even tomorrow. Just someday. I’m not the spring chicken who first opened this place before you were born.”
Aunt Clara transferred her gaze and her hand to Donald with a sweet smile. “I’ve been learning about the fine art of enjoying life without working. One doesn’t need to work hard all the time. That’s why I took off early today. I deserve an occasional day off.”
Maggie could hardly believe her ears. She’d never heard her aunt sound this way. It had to be Donald. He was already setting her up to depend on him. Next, he’d convince her to marry him and then he’d be trying to figure out ways to get rid of Maggie.
She had to nip this in the bud.
“Excuse me, but I’m not such a lady of leisure.” Maggie got to her feet and tried to keep her tone light and airy. She didn’t want to tip Donald off. “The pie shop won’t close itself.”
“Go right ahead, honey.” Aunt Clara nibbled at her pie. “We’ll finish up here, and Donald said he’ll take us home.”
“Ryan’s here.” He waved to Aunt Clara from the service window. “I’ll have him take me home. You two take your time. I’ll see you when I get there.”
She took the dirty coffeepots to the kitchen to be washed.
When the door between the dining room and the kitchen had swung closed behind her, Maggie’s anger boiled over. “That’s it. You’re right. We have to find a way to tell her.”