Lineage Most Lethal – S. C. Perkins

“Stop,” I begged. “Please.” Her trancelike gaze swiveled my way, curly tendrils of graying brown hair sticking to her damp forehead. My eyes darted from her round, blotchy face to the mound of white powder she held in her gloved hand. “No,” she said. Despite the cool day, sweat trickled down her temple, mingling with a smudge of mascara and blue eyeliner. “It’s what I have to do.” She drew her arm up, her thick wrist flexing backward. She was going to use the entire handful. Oh, the damage it could cause. I reached out, latching on to her wrist. With a yelp, her fingers opened and the powder fell in a fluffy white shower onto the grass. She whirled on me. “Hey! What was that for?” Palms outstretched, I said, “I’m so sorry, but I couldn’t let you do that.” She looked down at her glove, which was coated in powder.

It also dusted most of her purple stretchy knit pants and the hem of her multihued striped cardigan. “For heaven’s sake, why not? It’s just all-purpose flour.” Pulling off her gloves, she began brushing the flour from her knit pants with angry strokes. “All I’m trying to do is get a clear look at that unreadable gravestone”—she jutted her chin in the direction of what would have been the target of her flour bomb—“which I’m pretty sure shows the resting place of my great-great-grandma.” The name and date were indeed hard to read, as the stone had been worn with time, dirt, and lichen. “I saw online that if you rub flour onto it and then brush some of it off, the words will show up nice and clear.” “Well, technically that’s right,” I told her, holding out a clean washcloth I’d pulled from the tote bag that had somehow stayed on my shoulder. She snatched it from me. Her eyes were a clear gray, and they were shooting me icy daggers of annoyance. “See? Then why did you grab me and knock the flour out of my hand?” “Because of what happens when flour gets wet,” I said.

She went silent, giving her pants two more rough strokes with the washcloth, then finally grunted, “It gets gummy.” Her voice went defiant again. “I was going to brush it all off, you know.” “I don’t doubt it for a second.” Nodding toward her still floury legs, I said, “But as you’re reminded, it’s hard to get all the flour off, and any residue that’s left behind can trap moisture and speed up the deterioration of the gravestones.” She gestured toward her intended target. “Then how am I supposed to read it? My mama’s not well enough to come out here and see the grave herself, and it’s taken me almost a year to find where my great-great-grandma was in the first place. I’d planned to do one of those rubbings you hear about.” She pulled a thick crayon from her pocket and indicated her own tote bag. Inside, along with an open bag of flour, I glimpsed a piece of rolled-up butcher paper.

I tilted my head toward the entrance of Comal Cemetery. Located forty-five minutes outside of Austin in the town of New Braunfels, it was the final resting place of a good two dozen ancestors of my latest client, hotel heiress Pippa Sutton. “Some cemeteries allow rubbings and some don’t. This one doesn’t. Usually you have to call ahead or check the website, but this one also has a ‘no gravestone rubbings’ sign on the gate you entered through.” Her shoulders drooped. “So what am I supposed to do?” “I’ll show you.” Rummaging in my bag, I pulled out a soft-bristled brush and a plastic bottle filled with liquid. “This is a biological solution for cleaning gravestones. You can buy it off the internet or at certain stores.

First, we need to wet the stone with water. Then we’ll spray on the solution and suds it up, and the white lather will settle into the etchings and make them readable, just like the flour would have. From there, you can take lots of photographs with your phone.” Dousing the stone with water from a nearby spigot, I then sprayed on the biological solution. “Afterward, we’ll rinse it off again, but the agents in this stuff won’t harm the stone or the surrounding grass.” I grinned. “It’ll give it a nice cleaning to boot.” The would-be flour attacker looked dubious, but didn’t stop me as I went to work. Once the stone was all lathered up, I smoothed off the excess and the words became clear. I turned around to find her grinning ear to ear, a mist of tears filling her eyes as she saw the name on the stone.

“I found her,” she whispered. “We were thinking she’d been lost forever.” She leaned over, touching the stone with reverence and giving me a clear view of the cemetery entrance, where an old man stood, leaning heavily on a cane, as a car approached. A breeze lifted what patchy wisps of hair were left on the top of his head. His gray suit hung limply from his frame, and it took him two tries to open the car door before he began lowering himself into the back seat with effort. I wondered whose grave he’d been visiting. That of a loved one? A friend? A newfound ancestor like my flour-happy companion? As if he felt my gaze, he paused and looked straight at me. I had a fleeting impression of something I couldn’t place before interference in the form of a colorful striped cardigan broke our connection. “Now what do we do?” My new friend looked hopefully at me, shifting just enough so I could see the car carrying the old man disappearing down the side road. I smiled and focused.

“Now we take some photos for you and your mother before we rinse off the solution.” I showed her how to work the filters and extra editing features on her phone’s camera to make the words even clearer. “My goodness,” she said, her cheeks now pink with happy surprise. I said, “For gravestones that aren’t as badly worn as your ancestor’s, sometimes you can just take a photo and use filters to make the words stand out.” The woman gave a hefty sniffle, wiping her nose with the washcloth I’d given her. “How do you know all of this?” I held out my hand to her. “It’s part of my job. My name is Lucy Lancaster, and I’m a genealogist.” TWO “I admit it, Luce, I’m a little jealous you get to be in the lap of luxury at the Hotel Sutton for the next five days and Josephine and I have to wait until New Year’s to join you,” Serena said. “All my travel in the past two months has been bloody exhausting, and I’m ready for a staycation.

” “Seriously, who makes your schedule? You should sack her this instant,” I teased. This was met with an amused snort from both Serena and Josephine, my two best friends and office mates. All three of us were self-employed and shared an office space in a small historic building in downtown Austin, just a block south of the Texas Capitol. On the third floor of the Old Printing Office, as our building was known, I operated my genealogy business, Ancestry Investigations, while Josephine Haroldson was a sought-after translator and Serena Vogel was a successful style blogger and influencer. While all of us had been busy over the holiday season, Serena had been more in demand than usual. In fact, Josephine and I had barely seen our friend since early November. “Note to self,” Serena drawled, “fire self for overscheduling self like a total prat.” “I love how you two have picked up on my native British lingo,” Josephine said. “It makes me long for London—and feel as if I’ve been une très bonne influence.” “Considering we’ve mostly picked up on your native British swear words, I’m thinking you’ve been a very good bad influence,” Serena said.

“Oh, you’ve definitely influenced us, Jo,” I said with a grin that neither of my friends could see, since they were at the office and I was in my car, driving back to town from New Braunfels. “Only it comes two years after we had you saying ‘y’all’ and addicted to queso and guacamole, so I’m thinking Serena and I were the better bad influencers.” “More like the unfair advantage of two against one,” Josephine retorted, before adding, to Serena, “Though now I want some guacamole. Care to make our Lucy jealous by having happy hour at Big Flaco’s Tacos?” “High five,” I heard Serena say, and there was the sound of slapping palms. “Oh, now that’s just a low blow,” I said. My scandalized tone only made them snigger. “Anyhoo,” Serena said. “We actually called to check how your schedule with the Sutton project was going. Would you fancy a facial with us at the hotel spa on New Year’s Eve morning? I called and they still have one spot open at ten a.m.

” Turning off West Cesar Chavez Street, I hung a left onto Delta Drive. The semiprivate road angled sharply toward Lady Bird Lake for two-tenths of a mile, past a line of tall juniper trees marking the boundary of the Sutton estate, before depositing me onto the crushed-granite parking lot of the Hotel Sutton, where I was about to start my own luxurious staycation. Well, mostly. I was still officially on contract, with a few days’ work left to do for Pippa Sutton, my twenty-four-year-old client who was the last descendant of the famed nineteenth-century Texas land baron Reginald Sutton and his stylish English wife, Sarah Bess, to bear the Sutton surname. Though Pippa was an only child, she had a whole bevy of cousins she was close to, most of whom I’d interviewed over the preceding six weeks. Part of the reason I was staying at the Hotel Sutton was that I had more interviews scheduled with two of Pippa’s out-of-town cousins so I could add their oral histories to the documentary-style video I’d created. Afterward, I would edit the videos and put together the final presentation that would be shown on New Year’s Day to Pippa, her mother, Roselyn, and nearly a hundred other descendants of Sarah Bess and Reginald. I’d show it twice, in fact. Tomorrow, at Pippa’s request, I’d be unveiling a draft version to a small group of her closest family members, all of whom were first cousins once removed or second cousins, and one great-aunt known to everyone as Aunt Tilly. They were the relatives who’d banded around Pippa and her mother after the death of Pippa’s father eighteen years earlier.

With her paternal grandfather’s passing last year, Pippa had become the sole heiress of a nearly hundred-year-old dynasty of small but high-end hotels in Texas and other parts of the South. Knowing she was the last official Sutton in the family line was the impetus behind Pippa’s decision to hire me. My job was to help her preserve the Sutton name and its history. Not just for Pippa herself, but also for her other family members, including future generations. “So, what do you think?” Serena’s voice said through my car speakers. Inwardly, I sighed. My best friends would be snogging their boyfriends on New Year’s Eve, but when the clock struck midnight, I would be singing “Alone Lang Syne.” Still, maudlin wasn’t normally my thing, so I made sure my tone was bright. “Sure, ten o’clock will work.” My response was met with the silence of friends who know you better than you think.

“Yeah, we heard that fake cheeriness, Luce,” Serena said in dry tones. In the background I heard Josephine’s “Mmm-hmm,” but she added kindly, “You don’t have to come with us if you don’t want to, love.” “No, no,” I said, “of course I want to. Book me the appointment, Serena. If I only get to look dewy and glowing for myself and you two, that’s enough for me. It’ll be fun.” “You’ll be even more beautiful than usual,” Josephine said. “Walter and Ahmad will notice, too, no doubt.” Serena added, “But they always think you look great.” “Okay, okay,” I said with a laugh.

“I know it’s the end of December and there’s a chance it may snow on New Year’s, but there’s no need to tack your own snow job on top of it. I’m fine. Really. And the facial sounds great.” Catching sight of my determined face in my rearview mirror as I put my car in park, I said, “In fact, while you’re at it, see if you can also book me a massage. I deserve it.” “Too bloody right,” Josephine said. “Heck yeah, you do,” Serena agreed. “I’ll call the spa back now.” And I only just heard Jo sing out, “See you on New Year’s, love!” before my friends hung up on me.

Just beyond the Hotel Sutton’s parking lot, the afternoon sun was casting its last glints of the day onto the surface of Lady Bird Lake, the Colorado River reservoir named after former First Lady and Texas native Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson. I hefted my suitcase from the trunk as a double-decker riverboat chugged slowly westward over the water, groups of tourists lining its railings and enjoying the pleasantly cold December air. A near constant stream of walkers, joggers, and cyclists made use of the ten miles of trail skirting the lake. One woman, running by with a shaggy mixed-breed dog, faltered in her pace for a moment, staring up the terraced lawn at the Hotel Sutton for the seconds it took her to pass. I was familiar with the sensation. The hotel, once a grand private house, suddenly and gloriously appeared out of the trees as you came along the path, its elegant beauty proud in the clearing, and vanished just as quickly behind the veil of oaks, cypresses, and sugarberry trees as the trail curved away. Slinging my tote bag over my shoulder, I rolled my suitcase over the crushed-granite pathway and around a stand of topiaries and leafless crepe myrtles to the front of the hotel, carried it up the wide steps to the deep front porch, and pulled open one of the heavy wooden double doors. A lovely smell of furniture polish and fresh flowers met me in the foyer, as did a large Aubusson rug in shades of gold and cream on a field of aqua. A runner in complementary tones ran up the grand staircase, while the adjacent front room held prim emerald-green velvet sofas and rugged-looking distressed-leather armchairs. Dominating the left wall over a large fireplace was a gilt-framed 1901 portrait of Sarah Bess Sutton, Pippa’s three-times-great-grandmother.

On the opposite wall, underneath the fluted balusters of the grand staircase hung a Warhol-esque painting of a long-haired dachshund, his ears and tail up as if he’d spied a rat to flush out of a hole. Sarah Bess’s dark green eyes seemed to be perpetually regarding the little dog with the hint of an amused smile. The mix of feminine and masculine, stately and cheekily modern—it was all Pippa’s doing, and it all worked perfectly. “Lucy, welcome back, my dear. You’re just in time for cocktails.” If I hadn’t recognized the voice, I would have thought Sarah Bess herself had spoken to me. Instead, at the back of the room, pink-cheeked Mrs. Pollingham was beaming at me from her post, a huge curved desk fronted by tufted saddle-toned leather. “Miss Pippa went to her cottage, but she’ll be back in a flash,” she continued. “She asked that you leave your suitcase for the bellboy and meet her in the bar for your progress update.

” “Happy to,” I said. The bar was mere feet from where I was standing and a fire was already crackling merrily in the fireplace behind the marble high-top tables and brass-accented barstools. “Excellent,” Mrs. Pollingham said. “She wants to try something called a Napoli old fashioned on you to see if it’s worthy of the happy hour menu. It has a shot of Chef Rocky’s homemade blood orange liqueur in it, as if all the bourbon weren’t enough. I’ve already told him to be sure and send you two out something to eat before you start drinking that lethal-sounding concoction.” I grinned. “Old fashioneds … a warm bar … anything made by Chef Rocky … I like the way you and Pippa think, Mrs. P.

” Parking my suitcase beside a Queen Anne chair upholstered in bold striped satin, I started to pivot in the direction of the bar, then stopped in my tracks as the look on Mrs. P.’s face went from its usual sweet expression to a frown. Eyes in a crystalline blue were locked onto my legs as she made her way around the front desk and crossed over the Aubusson to stand in front of me, hands on her hips. Somewhere in her fifties and a longtime employee of the Sutton chain of hotels, Mrs. P. was all softness, from her curves to her hair, which was gingery with a bit of gray and worn in a chin-length pageboy that was often tucked behind her ears. She was barely taller than my five foot two but her capable, no-nonsense presence made her a giant at the Hotel Sutton. She was called the Force of the Front Desk, and everyone loved her, including me. “What’s this? What happened to you?” she asked.

I looked down at my dark jeans. Or what had been dark jeans when I drove to New Braunfels at lunchtime. Now they were dusted with so much flour, they’d lightened by two full shades. “Holy cow,” I said. “Hyacinth’s bag of flour must have spilled on me when I carried it for her. We were talking so much I didn’t even notice.” To Mrs. P.’s curious look, I explained, “Hyacinth’s a woman I met at Comal Cemetery when I was there taking photos of the Sutton family gravestones. She was trying to use flour on her ancestor’s stone to get the name to show up better.

I explained why she shouldn’t, of course. She was very nice once we got to talking, though, and very interested in learning more about genealogy.” Mrs. P.’s eyebrows rose slowly at the earnestness in my voice. “My dear, other people go to New Braunfels to have a good time floating down the Comal River in inner tubes. It does make me wonder that your idea of a good time is to go to Comal Cemetery.” “Hey, it’s never a good time until you go hunting for dead people, Mrs. P.,” I quipped.

“Everyone knows that.” Her eyes lit with mirth. “How did you fare, then? Did you find all the dearly departed Suttons you wanted?” She gently turned me back toward the door as she spoke. I took the hint. I was to rid my legs of flour before reentering her carefully guarded front room. “I did,” I said as she opened the front door for me and we stepped out onto the porch, with its classic Haint blue ceiling. I pulled my phone from my bag, showing her a handful of photos, including the gravestones for Sarah Bess and Reginald. The last photo was of the gravestones of James and Nell Sutton, Pippa’s paternal great-grandparents. “I need to ask why James and Nell aren’t in the same row as James’s parents, or his siblings and their spouses. I’m wondering if James didn’t initially expect to be buried in New Braunfels, being that he went back to England for so many years and fought in World War Two as a British citizen.

” “You’re spot on as usual, Lucy, as my great-granddad would say,” came a voice from behind me.

.

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