The woman who answered the door was not what Niles expected. She was short, round, and silver haired, wearing a brilliant floral cotton dress and an equally brilliant smile that revealed her dentures. Her pale blue eyes twinkled even when Niles’ partner, Mariella Cruz, flashed her Baltimore Police badge.
“May we come in?” Cruz asked, flicking a confused glance at Niles.
Bessie McGill flung the door wide and with a flourish ushered the two officers into her small, cheerful bungalow. Officers Williams and Cooksey remained outside the white picket fence that separated her garden from the street.
Niles didn’t need to study Bessie’s parlor to know what it contained. The smell of peppermint, cocoa, and butterscotch assaulted his finely tuned vampire nose. Overly fussy furniture and massive glass jars of candy filled the room. Atop the grand piano stood pedestal jars containing caramels, peppermints, sour balls, and licorice. A menagerie of sugar glass animals marched across the mantle above her well-used fireplace. Chains of sour drops hung like Christmas decorations from the stair railing. The riot of colors in iridescent hues was painful to Niles’ sensitive eyes.
Cruz edged close and muttered, “I feel like I’m investigating my own grandmother.”
Niles also lowered his voice. “I don’t have a grandmother.” At her quirked brow, he asked, “Are you saying you don’t want to pursue this lead?”
His partner vacillated. “I don’t know. Seems like we’ve invaded the North Pole. Maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree.”
Cruz considered then dove in. She smiled at Bessie. “We’re investigating the disappearance of five children from the area.”
Bessie settled her ample behind against the back of the overstuffed chintz sofa and waited.
“Your neighbors tell us all five of the missing children came here for candy.”
Bessie smiled brightly. “I’m sure they did. All the children within walking distance visit me for candy.” She waved at her house which looked more like a Victorian candy store than it did a residence. “I adore children! I keep all this purely for them.”
Niles considered her substantial girth and questioned that assertion. He lifted a brow. Bessie looked him in the eye and he saw the challenge. Just say it. I dare you. He blinked, startled by the aggression. Then the look was gone and Bessie was a sweet old grandmother again.
Cruz looked conflicted. The little Mexican-American normally took no prisoners. If she scented anything she didn’t like she would be on it like a woodchuck on a log. Unfortunately, the benign space offered her nothing.
“Would you mind if we looked around?” Niles asked.
When Cruz raised her brows, he shrugged. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Bessie’s smile didn’t waver. “Of course not, dear! I have no idea what you think you’ll find, but you’re more than welcome. I have nothing to hide.”
“Does anyone else live with you?” Niles asked as Cruz wandered into the kitchen and he circled the parlor.
“No.” Bessie sighed. “I lost my third husband ten years ago. I never had any children. That’s why I offer the neighborhood children candy.” Her smile returned and her face softened. “They treat me like their grandmother. They’re such sweet dears.”
Niles frowned. For some reason the way she spoke bothered him. He sensed she used a code only he should understand. Unfortunately he didn’t.
Bessie gestured to a jar of red hots. “Have some if you like.”
When Niles politely refused she frowned. “Don’t like the hot stuff I suppose.” She pointed around the room. “I have something for everyone. Even some exotic items. Candy lips, maybe? Licorice worms? How about candy blood?”
Niles froze. He stared at her as she blithely peered back at him.
Cruz returned and eyed him strangely. Niles suspected his ordinarily pallid face had gone totally white.
“I’d like our officers to look around if that’s all right,” he stammered. He wanted a better search.
Bessie nodded. “Certainly.”
Williams and Cooksey sounded like a herd of buffalo as they stomped inside. Cooksey headed upstairs while Williams took the basement. Niles decided to try his luck. His hand trailed over Bessie’s desk as he skimmed the mail piled on its surface.
Bessie watched curiously as Niles flipped through the stack of envelopes.
“What exactly are you looking for?” she asked. “Maybe I could help you find it.”
Niles shot her a glance but kept reading.
“I assume it must be about with those lost children,” Bessie continued. “You can’t possibly think I was involved in their disappearances. I love children.”
Cruz’s dark eyes flicked between the two people. Her puckered brow indicated she sensed the unspoken conflict brewing. “We’re concerned because all of them came here.”
“As did probably another fifty children who didn’t disappear,” Bessie replied. She appeared undisturbed by the police wandering through her house.
Williams ascended from the basement. He shook his head.
“Nothing except cobwebs and spiders.”
Cooksey’s feet thumped as he descended the stairs. “Nothing upstairs.”
Bessie smiled. “No clumps of discarded children’s clothing? No charred bones in the oven?”
Niles jerked. Cruz frowned. Their gazes met over Bessie’s head. Niles tried to send a message but Cruz wasn’t getting it.
“Well, thank you for your time.” Cruz offered Bessie her hand.
Bessie gave a firm shake back. “Glad to be of help. If I hear anything I’ll call you.”
Williams and Cooksey looked longingly at the candy. Bessie grinned and offered a bowl of butterscotches. Both men took fistfuls as they tromped out the door.
Cruz waved off the candy as she patted her hips. “Thank you, no. Always have to watch the waistline.”
Bessie nodded. “I understand. Have a good day now.”
Cruz apologized for intruding. As she slid past Niles, she muttered, “What a waste of time.”
Niles inclined his head as he made his exit. “Thank you, Mrs. McGill.”
Bessie followed him to the door. Her hand touched his arm just before he moved out of reach. “Do come back when the children are here, Mr. Gule. You’ll see just how I treat them. Like they were my very own.”
“I don’t care much for children,” Niles murmured uncomfortably.
Bessie beamed. “Then you must come back. I’ll show you just how sweet they are.”
Niles blinked. “Excuse me?”
Bessie’s smile grew darker as she backed into her home. “Oh, come now, Mr. Gule. Don’t be coy with an old witch. You like a good child as much as the next vampire, don’t you?”
“I’ll look forward to seeing you next time I have guests. We can enjoy them together.” Bessie cackled as she closed the door.
© 2016 Newmin