The Good, the Bad, and the Emus

Chapter 1

"Be careful!" I said, looking up from the boxwood hedge I was pruning. "We don't want another trip to the emergency room. We've used up our family quota for the week."

My twin four-year-old sons paid no attention, of course. Josh, who was supposed to be collecting the fallen twigs and leaves into small piles, continued to battle an invisible opponent, now using a particularly large, sharp stick I'd just pruned off the hedge. Jamie had volunteered for the task of loading the small piles into the wheelbarrow and ferrying them to the large pile by the driveway that was awaiting the eventual arrival of a borrowed chipper/shredder, but his active imagination had transformed the bright red wheelbarrow into a high-powered race car, to judge by his repeated growls of "Vroom! Vroom!" And his racetrack was starting to inch near the street in front of our house, and while it was a little-traveled country road, cars did pass by often enough that I didn't want the boys getting complacent about playing there.

Neither of them heard me. But I wasn't really talking to the boys. My seventeen-year-old niece, Natalie, who would be serving as the boys' babysitter this summer, snapped to attention.

"Josh!" she called out. "Drop that stick before you put someone's eye out! Jamie! Out of the street! Inside the hedge!"

I returned to my snipping, satisfied that Natalie was on the case. And that she was beginning to get a handle on her job. She had taken care of the boys two summers ago, but apparently had forgotten how lively they could be. Then again, compared to two summers ago, their capacity for mischief and mayhem had grown exponentially. I'd gotten used to the change gradually, as they'd grown. Natalie was still catching up.

In a day or so, once she was really up to speed, I could retreat for hours each day to the barn where I had my blacksmith's workshop. In fact, I could start retreating the day after tomorrow, when Michael's spring semester ended, and he'd have several weeks off before the summer session began. I could delegate training Natalie to him while I hit the anvil. I hadn't had much time for iron work since the boys were born, and had almost given up selling at craft shows. Hard enough to get routine household chores done safely with two increasingly active munchkins underfoot. No way did I want them in the same room when I was heating steel to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit and then whacking on it with a three-pound hammer. I managed to get in a little time at the anvil during Caerphilly College's semester breaks, when Michael was not only willing but eager to spend time with the boys. But I never had enough time to stock my booth for even a modest-sized craft show. And while the higher salary Michael now earned as a tenured professor in the drama department meant we could manage without my crafting income, the money I'd earn would be helpful. Besides, I didn't want to lose my hard-won skills.

So with Natalie around all summer, I was planning a frenzy of iron work. As soon as I was sure she really understood just how carefully she had to watch "Trouble" and "Danger," as my brother, Rob, had nicknamed his nephews.

Today we were easing into what I hoped would become our routine, with her keeping an eye on the boys while I did neglected yard work and repairs and kept an eye on her. It was a beautiful mid-June day, sunny, but not hot—perfect weather for being outdoors and enjoying the wealth of flowers in our yard. The azaleas were past, but the mountain laurels, rhododendrons, and magnolias were in bloom, and the scent of the lilacs was almost overpowering. And daylilies were everywhere—not just the common orange and yellow ones, but daylilies in every possible shade of red, white, purple, lilac, and pink. A glorious day to be outside.

I was relieved to find that Natalie didn't seem to mind being outside. I'd been a little worried when she'd showed up that first day in a Morticia Addams black dress with trailing, fluttery sleeves. Apparently, since the last time we'd seen her, she'd taken to dressing entirely in black except for the odd bit of skull- and spider-themed silver jewelry, and her skin was so pale I was afraid she'd blister if she stepped outside.

But I soon realized that her pallor was due to sunscreen and careful use of makeup, and in spite of looking like a refugee from a low-budget vampire film, she was still the same cheerful, organized, responsible kid she'd always been. And she'd put away the dress after the first night and was now wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt, black sneakers, and a black baseball cap. I anticipated that some of the more sedate citizens of Caerphilly would look askance at our choice of babysitters, but Michael and I were content. And we'd gladly complied with her request to take over a corner of the back yard for her own gardening project, which seemed to involve growing as many black plants as possible. Already, dark-flowered hellebores and nearly black pansies were blooming in her bed, surrounded by neatly raked black mulch, and she'd used black ribbons to tie her black tomato and pepper plants to their black iron stakes. I'd actually decided that it made a nice restful contrast with the multicolored profusion of the rest of the yard.

The four of us had weeded the vegetable garden right after breakfast, and now I was pruning the hedge. Our black-and-copper Welsummer hens were hovering nearby, pouncing on any insects disturbed by my pruning. It was slow going, because I was using hand tools—the power hedge clipper, like any other power tool, was too attractive to small eyes and fingers—and even the manual clippers were dangerous enough, given the constant danger that an overeager hen would trip me on her way to nab a particularly tempting insect.

I switched to the hand pruners to do some fine tuning and continued snipping away, listening carefully to Natalie's interactions with the boys and stifling the urge to offer advice every five seconds or so.

"Josh, leave the chicken alone. I don't think she wants to play tag."

"Jamie, don't jump on the brush pile."

"Take that out of your mouth."

"Stop throwing rocks at your brother."

"I don't think the doggie wants to eat holly leaves."

"Leave that alone."

"No, I said later."

She was learning. And I was making good progress. Should I try to finish the hedge before lunch? Or would it be wiser to break now, get the boys fed, and have Natalie learn how to put them down for naps? I could finish the hedge while they were asleep and—


Natalie's bloodcurdling scream startled me. My right hand slipped, and I felt a searing pain as the pruners sliced into my left fingers. Just a laceration, though; the fingers themselves were still attached, I noted, as I ran to the other end of the hedge where Natalie and the boys were, wrapping my hand in my shirttail as I ran.

"I'm sorry," Jamie was saying.

"Only a grass snake," Josh was saying. "See?"

He held up the writhing green reptile that had provoked Natalie's scream. She backed away slightly.

"Josh, put the snake down," I said. "Maybe Cousin Natalie doesn't like snakes." Which would be rather ironic, since her favorite earrings were a pair of long, dangly silver serpents, but you never knew.

"I'm sorry, Meg," Natalie began. "I'm not scared of snakes; really, I'm not. I was just startled and—oh! What happened?"

I looked down at my hand. Blood was pouring out of my fingers.

"I'll get a bandage." Natalie headed for the house.

"Blast." It wasn't nearly as satisfying as the "damn" I'd have uttered if the boys were not around. "I was hoping we'd seen the last of the ER for the week."

I gave in to Natalie's insistence that she drive me to the ER. But on the way, I managed to pull out my cell phone and make arrangements for her to take the boys over to visit Mother and Dad for the afternoon.

"You know how long it always takes at the ER," I said. "And how restless the boys get."

Natalie nodded and looked more cheerful at the prospect of going to her grandparents' house instead of spending more hours at the ER. Two days ago Jamie had fallen out of the barn loft and cut his forehead. Yesterday, it had been Josh's turn to get stitches, thanks to a close encounter with a broken pickle jar. Both days, I'd accompanied the injured twin back to see the doctor while Natalie tried to keep the other entertained and protect the ER waiting room from collateral damage. She'd gone to bed early the last two nights—about ten minutes behind the boys.

"Mommy okay?" Jamie asked, as I got out in front of the ER.

"I'll be fine," I said. "I'm just going to get some stitches from Grandpa's friend in the ER, like the ones you guys got."

"Mommy get ice cream now?" Josh asked. A trip to the Caerphilly Ice Cream Parlor had become the standard reward for brave behavior at the ER.

"Not until later, when you can come with me," I said.

That idea was well received, and both boys stopped looking anxious.

"Now don't forget to show Grandpa your stitches so he can make sure they're healing properly." I shut the minivan's door.

I watched for a moment as Natalie pulled out of the parking lot. She was a careful driver. And there was a limit to how much mischief the boys could cause while strapped into their car seats. Right?

I turned and walked into the ER.

"Not you again. Which one is it this time?"

Crystal, a friend who worked at the hospital, was sitting behind the admissions desk.

"Me," I said. I held up my hand and pulled off the once-clean dish towel wrapped around it. The bleeding had mostly stopped, but since this allowed me a better view of the four deep lacerations along the inside of my fingers, it wasn't entirely an improvement.

"Yuck," she said, wincing. "Wrap it up again and keep the pressure on. Let's get you checked in. Kitchen knife?"

"Pruning shears."

I filled out the now-familiar paperwork—actually, I only had to complete a few fields on the form Crystal handed me. A couple of months ago she'd added our household to what she called her frequent filer program, which meant that she kept a set of prefilled forms for us in her computer and could just print them out when we came through the door.

Then I was ushered back to an even-more-familiar cubicle. Another nurse inspected my hand and then dashed out, apparently satisfied that I was in no immediate danger of bleeding out. No doubt if Dad was in the hospital she'd send him in. Although he was, in theory, semiretired, he still spent rather a lot of time here and in the consulting office he'd opened in his barn. Meanwhile, the doctor's daughter in me began trying to figure out what was up with all the other patients in the ER, based on what I'd seen on my way to my cubicle and what I could overhear now. A possible heart attack in one cubicle. And a kid with a possible concussion in another. Possible appendicitis in a third. Rats. Everyone sounded more dire than me.

I sat back and resigned myself to a long wait.

My cell phone rang. I answered it quickly—always aware of the possibility Natalie was calling to report a new crisis.

But it wasn't Natalie. It was Stanley Denton, a private investigator who had set up his office in Caerphilly a few years ago.

"Could I come out to your house to ask you about something?" he asked, after we'd exchanged the usual greetings.

"Not right now," I said. "I'm actually in the ER at Caerphilly Hospital waiting to get stitches. Just some cuts," I hastened to add. "But I have no idea how long I'll be here."

"Even better," he said. "Not the cuts, of course, but I could just stop by the hospital. Only a few blocks from my office, you know. I could talk to you while you're waiting to see the doctor. Help you while away the long delay."

"Talk to me about what?"

"I'll explain when I get there. Shouldn't be more than a few minutes."

It took Stanley about five minutes, and by the time he arrived, Dr. Gridwell, the duty ER doctor, had arrived to examine my hand.

"We don't give group discounts, you know," the doctor was saying. "Not even if you come in together, and certainly not if you straggle in one by one all week. Your father coming down to supervise again?"

Beneath his nonchalant, bantering tone I detected a note of tension. Gridwell had been the one to stitch up both boys. Not every doctor likes having his patients' regular doctor supervising every move he makes. Especially when the doctor was also the patients' very opinionated grandfather. Of course, I understood what Dad was up to. Gridwell had only recently joined the staff at Caerphilly Hospital, and Dad was still assessing this new colleague's skills.

"Dad didn't come with me," I said. "He might still show up if he hears I'm here. But maybe if you kick me out pretty soon he won't bother."

"Hmph." From the alacrity with which Gridwell bounced out of the room and began throwing around orders to the rest of the staff, I deduced that yes, he would rather get me stitched up and discharged before Dad arrived to second-guess him. And the fact that he was willing to try was good news for the other patients, who presumably were stable, under observation, and in no need of anything urgent.

"Well played," Denton said. "I wonder if I should drop your father's name next time I show up here."

"Can't hurt," I said. "What can I do for you?"

"If you have time to talk," he said, glancing around.

"Dr. Gridwell can't do anything until someone gets here with the Mayo tray," I said.

"Mayo tray? He's sent out for sandwiches?"

"That's what the medical people call that metal rolling cart that you or I would probably call the suture tray. That thing," I added, as the med tech rolled it in.

"I'd probably call it the thing they use to bring in the scissors and the sutures and the bandages and all the other stuff the doc needs to put you back together again." Stanley shuddered slightly as the tech began arranging the contents of the tray. "Anyway, I want to ask you something about a case."

"Ask away," I said.

"I was wondering if you could come down to Riverton to help me out."

I closed my eyes and sighed slightly.

"It's only about forty miles from here, and—"

"Look," I said. "I know my dad seems to think I'm Caerphilly County's answer to Nancy Drew or Miss Marple, but he exaggerates my sleuthing skills. And I'm pretty busy—now that we have a reliable babysitter, I plan to get a lot of blacksmithing done for the fall craft-fair season."

"Not with that hand." Gridwell was back. "Trust me, you won't want to be doing much blacksmithing for a few days."

"That's perfect," Stanley said. "This won't take long. And I really don't need for you to do anything. I just need to borrow your face."