Marilyn Meredith and F.M. Meredith author of mysteries and Christian thrillers


Not As It Seems

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Tempe and Hutch travel to Morro Bay for son Blair’s wedding, but when the maid-of-honor disappears, Tempe tries to find her. The search is complicated by ghosts and Native spirits.

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Chapter 1

   Tempe and her husband, Hutch, traveled to Morro Bay for her son Blair’s wedding. Blair asked Hutch to officiate at the ceremony, and both he and Tempe looked forward to meeting Blair’s fiancée and her family.

   Soon after checking into the Bay Cottage Inn, on one of the main streets of Morro Bay leading toward the beach, Blair arrived.

   Her son’s anguished expression alarmed Tempe. .

   “Oh, honey.” She hugged him. “What’s wrong?”

   Blair sank into a chair at the table in the small room. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep anything from you. Amaresh’s best friend is missing.”

   “What do you mean?”

   “No one has heard from her and we’ve talked to everyone who knows her and she doesn’t seem to be anywhere. Amaresh is so upset I don’t know whether or not we’ll be able to go through with the wedding.”

   “You have gone to the police, right?”

   “Of course. They were reluctant at first to even take the report. The desk sergeant went through the rigmarole that Kathy, that’s her name, Kathy Welling, is an adult and has the right to disappear if she so desires.”

   “Amaresh became so angry I was afraid of what she might say. Though her eyes blazed, she explained carefully that Kathy is one of her best friends and was looking forward to being the maid of honor in her upcoming wedding. Finally the officer took down all the information, but I don’t think the police are doing much about it.”

   “Oh, honey, that’s terrible. Have you checked with her family and all of her friends?”

   “Of course, Mom, but no one knows anything.”

   “What do you want me to do?” Tempe asked.

   “I was hoping you’d ask. Do you think you could see what you could find out?”

   Tempe glanced at Hutch who ran his fingers through his already mussed auburn hair and frowned.

   He said, “Don’t you think it would be better if the investigation was left up to the local police department?”

   Blair shook his head. “No, I don’t. They aren’t going to work fast enough for Amaresh. What do you say, Mom?”

   Despite the fact that Blair was now a broad-shouldered, muscular man with his blond hair cut short, when he spoke to her like that, she couldn’t help but think about the slim boy with the corn-silk hair who managed to talk her into doing almost anything for him. “Of course I’ll help. But I’ll have to speak with everyone who knew her. Remember, I have no official status here so what I can do will be limited.”

   Tempe was the resident deputy in the mountain community of Bear Creek where she and Hutch lived.

   “I know. Mr. and Mrs. Barili would like you to come for dinner tonight. They’re anxious to meet you both, and so is Amaresh.”

 

   Tempe had taken two weeks off to meet her son’s fianceé and her parents. Hutch, the pastor of the only church in Bear Creek, had found a substitute to take care of his pastorate.

   Blair’s apartment was too small for him to host his parents, but he’d recommended the motel with a bedroom and kitchen. Since Morro Bay was a beach town and a popular tourist attraction, most hotels were expensive.

   When Blair had first become a fireman, he’d responded to a fire at the Bayside Motel. Not only was the majority of the structure saved, but Blair had rescued the owner’s miniature poodle. They’d offered to put up anyone he wanted for a discount and he’d taken them up on it for Tempe and Hutch.

   A darling place, it had the ambience of a Cape Cod cottage, or at least what Tempe thought one might look like. The floors were painted and polished planks, the color scheme blue and white throughout. Paintings of various sea and beachscapes decorated the walls. The kitchen’s back door opened onto a small parking area where Hutch parked his truck.

   They’d been looking forward to spending time with Blair and his fiancée. Now it appeared it wouldn’t be quite as wonderful as they’d hoped.

   Before Blair left, he gave them his parents the address and directions to the Barilis’ home.

   Hutch, who’d checked out what was supplied in the kitchen, made a pot of coffee. “What a shame. I’m sure all this has put a damper on the wedding plans.”

   “That’s the main reason I’d like to help, and I’m anxious to meet Amaresh and her parents.”

   “Me too.” Hutch sat down opposite her at the small white wooden table. He reached out and took her hand. “Don’t get so caught up in the investigation that you don’t take time to enjoy yourself and your son’s special moments.”

   “I have no idea if I can even do anything. I’ve never been to Morro Bay before, and I’m unfamiliar with the area. All I can do is talk to people who knew the young woman and see if I can learn anything helpful.”

   Hutch smiled. “Ready for some coffee?”

   “Yes. Then we better get dressed for the evening.” Tempe had brought most of her civilian wardrobe with her. She decided she’d wear her favorite turquoise sweater over her nicest black slacks. If she brushed out her braid, her long, dark hair would have a bit of a wave.

 

   The Barilis lived in an older home located in a hilly area not far from the road that led to Morro Bay State Park, one of many places Hutch had listed he wanted to visit during their stay. Tempe wasn’t as interested in the local attractions as she was in spending time as much time as possible with her son and his fiancée. The fact she’d been asked to try and find the missing woman took her desire completely away from sight-seeing.

   Tempe had never visited Morro Bay. She couldn’t help but be intrigued by the large rock protruding from the ocean they’d seen when they first drove into the area. Unless the young woman turned up right away, there might not be time to see it up close or learn much about it.

   Using their GPS, they traveled a winding road lined with an abundance of trees. Some Tempe recognized, Monterey cypress, pine trees though they didn’t look like the ones where she lived, oak, cottonwood, and eucalyptus. They found the house perched on a hilltop, a winding staircase and rock wall led up to the porch. Bougainvillea climbed the stucco and brick walls. Daisies and begonias blossoms appeared here and there.

   Hutch parked his truck in a space on the opposite side of the street. Blair’s red Jeep was near the closed door of the single garage built into the side of hill.

   Together he and Tempe ascended the steps.

   She held her husband’s hand. She was both thrilled and nervous about meeting her prospective daughter-in-law and her parents.

   Hutch knocked on the wooden door.

   It opened immediately. A tall, handsome man with light tan skin and short gray hair greeted them. “Welcome. You must be Blair’s parents. I am Meharu. Enter, please.” He stepped back and ushered them inside the medium-sized living room.

   Blair jumped up from where he’d been sitting on a couch beside a beautiful young woman. “My mom and dad. Hutch and Tempe.” He reached down and took the hand of the woman, to help her up. “This is Amaresh.” Blair beamed with pride.

   Amaresh dipped her head. “I’m so glad to meet you both finally. Shouldn’t we address your father as Pastor?”

   Hutch’s grin displayed his dimple “Hutch is fine. Hopefully one day you’ll call me Dad.”

   A woman, with skin a bit darker than Amaresh’s, but with the same high forehead, large almond shaped eyes and wide mouth, approached Tempe and hugged her. “I am Amaresh’s mother, Yohdar. I am sure we will be great friends.” She wore a long gray silk blouse over black slacks.

   Amaresh’s parents spoke perfect English with only a hint of an accent. Tempe realized she’d expected them to be in foreign garb and difficult to understand. “I know we’ll be friends.”

   Yohdar’s dark eyes twinkled. “I can tell by your expression you expected us to be different than we are.”

   Embarrassed, Tempe said, “I admit that I wasn’t sure we would be able to understand you.”

   “We both learned in English while we were children in Ethiopia. We lived here for several years before Amaresh was born, and became citizens as soon as possible. I’m sure your son told you our story.”

   Meharu’s Italian heritage seemed more evident than the Ethiopian. At least it seemed so to Tempe. In either case, he had the good looks of a movie actor. In a dark green sweater with his shirt collar on the outside, and perfectly creased, brown slacks, he could have been the star of a romantic film.

   Tempe smiled. “He told us you were sponsored by missionaries.”

   “Yes, a wonderful couple who have gone on to be with the Lord. They helped us tremendously when we first arrived. We lived with them for two years after our arrival and they helped us both find jobs.”

   Yohdar, who still stood, slipped her arm through her husband’s. “We can get better acquainted over dinner. Come, let us go to the table. Everything is ready.”

   They entered through the arch that led to the dining room. A built-in buffet was on one wall. Glass French doors led out to a garden patio covered with vines. A glimpse of the kitchen could be seen on the left. Meharu escorted Yohdar to a chair at the end of the table. He suggested Tempe and Hutch sit on one side while Blair and Amaresh sat opposite them.

   Meharu presided at the head. “Pastor Hutch, would you be so kind as to bless the food?”

   Hutch gave a simple prayer and everyone at the table joined in on the “Amen”.

   Again, Tempe was surprised. She’d expected some sort of exotic Ethiopian food, instead of what was passed to her.

   Yohdar said, “I do hope you like seafood. I found this wonderful sea bass at the local fish market.”

   Along with the sea bass seasoned with lime and fresh cilantro, Yohdar served brown rice and black beans along with sliced tomatoes and a fruit salad, a simple but most delicious meal.

   The conversation sparkled with questions and answers. After going to school, Meharu became an electrical engineer and worked for a local manufacturing company until his recent retirement. Yohdar taught in a pre-school until Amaresh’s birth and returned when her daughter went off to college.

   Tempe was asked about her job choice. She explained quickly about being a widow left with a small child and attending the police academy while her aunt watched Blair. It wasn’t long before she was given the job of resident deputy in Bear Creek. When her aunt died, she inherited the cottage where she and Hutch now live. Hutch adopted Blair since he was the only father Blair knew.

   It wasn’t long before Yohdar made a comment Tempe had expected earlier. “Blair told us that you’re Native American. What tribe?”

   “It’s little known, but a part of the Yokuts.”

   Meharu said, “I haven’t heard of them. Here on the coast we have the Chumash and the Salinans.”

   “The Yokuts once roamed freely over the whole of the Central Valley.” Tempe said.

   “I’m ashamed to say we know little about the American Indians,” Yohdar said.

   Tempe smiled. “I don’t know as much as I should.”

   In an effort to change the subject, Tempe turned toward Amaresh. “How are the wedding plans going?”

   Amaresh bit her lip before answering. “They were going along well until Kathy disappeared.” She blinked a few times. “Blair thinks you might be able to find her.”

   “I’m certainly willing to try. I’ll need to find out about her and who her friends are.”

   “I’ll tell you everything I know.”

   Meharu lowered his straight dark brows, causing a line to form between them. “I thought you were going to wait until after dinner to bring this up.”

   “I was, Father, but she asked.”

   “Yes, I did. We’ll talk about it later.” Tempe turned to Yohdar. “The food is delicious. From what I can see, it looks like you have quite a garden.”

   Yohdar reached over and patted her daughter’s hand before saying, “There’s a grape arbor and we had quite a harvest this year. I also grow most of our vegetables including the tomatoes we ate this evening.”

   They continued to chat, giving tidbits of information about themselves as people do when they are getting acquainted.

   Tempe noticed how sad Amaresh seemed. Obviously her son realized it too, as he put a comforting arm around his fiancées shoulder. What a shame her special time had to be spoiled this way. Tempe made up her mind she’d do her best to find out what she could about the missing girl.

   After the table had been cleared Yohdar insisted she preferred to do the dishes herself, Meharu said to Hutch, “I’m sure you’ve heard something about my Italian roots.”

   Hutch said, “Yes, Blair mentioned that’s where the name Barili came from.”

   “Yes, my grandfather was in the Italian Army during World War II and was stationed in Ethiopia. He met and fell in love with my grandmother, and against her parents’ wishes, she married him. It wasn’t long before she was pregnant with my father. The Italian brigade my grandfather was stationed with was moved to another place and my grandmother never heard from him again. Fortunately, her parents took care of her and the baby. As the story was told to me, she was heartbroken and died when she was still a young woman. My father tried to track down his father, but had no success. It’s a long sad story with no happy ending. Like my father I’ve always been fascinated by the Italians. After Yohdar and I moved to the Central Coast and were looking for a house to buy, we found this one built by an Italian long ago during prohibition. It has a secret room where he made and stored wine. Would you like to see it?”

   Hutch pushed his chair back and stood. “Sure.”

   “Me too,” Blair said, “Amaresh told me about the room, but I’ve never gone down there.”

   Once the men had gone, leaving from the front door, Tempe turned to Amaresh. “Now might be a good time to tell me what you know about your friend.”

   “Come into the living room. I brought some photos.” Amaresh led the way back to the living room and pointed to a large dark brown leather couch. “Please, sit.”

   Once they’d settled themselves, Amaresh opened a folder on the glass topped coffee table. “I gathered some photographs of Kathy and a list of our mutual friends and their phone numbers. I gave all this information to the police, but I doubt if they’ve done anything with it.” Amaresh handed a photo to Tempe.

   Amaresh and a young blonde woman about the same age stood against a wooden railing, Morro Rock in the background. Shorter than Amaresh, Kathy’s smile displayed deep dimples in plump cheeks.

   “This was taken about a month ago. We’d gone in for dress fittings for my bridal gown and Kathy for her maid of honor dress.” Amaresh stared at the photo for several seconds. “We had such a good time that day.”

   Tempe took the photo. “Tell me about Kathy. “

   “We met at college. She had a terrible roommate and I talked her into moving into my folk’s house and sharing my bedroom. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but we got along well. My parents liked her too, so she stayed until after graduation and she settled into her job.”

   “What was that?”

   “Back then she was the administrator of a licensed care facility in San Luis Obispo. Not such a great job for someone with her education, but she loved it. Most of the residents who lived in that facility had some variation of mental health issues. It wasn’t long before the corporations she worked for put her in charge of multiple facilities. Much better salary and a tremendous amount of responsibility.” Amaresh frowned.

   “By your expression I’m guessing something went wrong.”

   “Yes, enough she decided to quit.”

   “Did she tell you the reason?”

   “A little, but she was worried about confidentiality laws.”

   “Do you think this could have had anything to do with her disappearance?”

   “I don’t know.”

   “I’d like to more details about where she worked.”

   “I’ll get you the information.”

   “I’ll also need her address.”

   “She moved recently. I’m not sure why, but she rented a room from a couple. She had kitchen privileges. She said her landlords were strange, but it didn’t matter, since she quit her job, she wanted a cheaper place to stay.”

   “Were you ever there?”

   “No, but the address is in the folder.”

   “Good. What about her private life? Did she have someone special in her life?”

   Amaresh sighed, and glanced down at her engagement ring. “She did for a long time, but like with her job, something went terribly wrong.”

   “What do you mean?”

   “She found out the man she was in love with was nothing like she’d thought. He’d been keeping secrets from her. I don’t know any details. She wouldn’t tell me because she said she didn’t want to do anything to put a damper on my happiness.” Amaresh started to cry. “Now she’s missing and I feel like I ought to postpone our wedding.”

   Tempe fished in her pocket and offered a fresh tissue to Amaresh. “As close as you say you two were, I don’t think she’d want you to do that.”

   Amaresh took the tissue and dabbed at her eyes. “That’s what everyone says, but how can I celebrate when my best friend has disappeared?”

   “What about the bridesmaids? Are they all friends with one another?”

   An odd expression crossed Amaresh’s face.