Since I have a bookshelf full of unpublished novels, I thought maybe I’d try the old fashioned way of publishing them a little bit at a time. If you want to see more of this one, please let me know in the usual manner by “Liking” and “Sharing”. God bless.
COFFIN OF LIGHT
cover by Wade Pollard
To Mama Lil, the “Aunt Hilda” in
October 15, 1988
I was called to the scene of the crime last Saturday, the fifteenth of October, at 2:45 p.m.. It was supposed to be my weekend off, but Watkins’ daughter was getting married, so I agreed to switch. I admit when I got the message that someone had bought it at the Roseville Beauty Salon, I almost laughed. An Old Bat’s ticker probably gave out under the blow dryer, I thought. Then, naturally, I realized that the Old Bat might be my Aunt Hilda, and I sobered up in a hurry.
The caller didn’t tell me it was murder, and it didn’t occur to me at the time it might be. I didn’t even take my steno pad with me. Had to make my notes in the little black notebook I carry in my back pocket. Roseville is just not the kind of town you normally associate with murder. I spend most of my time giving tickets to the dolts who think the two lane road through the center of town is somehow part of the Interstate. I wonder sometimes whatever possessed me to move back here from Philly. Dumb question. I’m not a tenderfoot. I’d seen murder there. And a few folks who might think murder would have been more merciful. But that was Philly. This was Roseville. It wasn’t supposed to be like that here.
Even before I opened the door to the beauty shop, I could see through the screen door that it was packed. I swear three fourths of Roseville was milling around in there. I yelled at everyone in the parking lot to go home. So many people gave me a suspicion that there was more to it than a heart attack victim, and I thought about calling in the State troopers then, but I figured I’d better find out what was up first before I called them running in from Atlanta. A tiny path cleared for me when I pulled open the door, and began treading my way through the madness. Corinne was working a fan double time trying to bring Mrs. Collins around, and Donna was passing out cups of water to all and sundry. Alice Anderson knelt in front of her mother-in-law, trying in vain to calm the hysterical woman, who sobbed loudly between bouts of hiccups. Already I could hear Aunt Hilda’s voice further in the back taking charge as usual. I should have known. Dad used to say she was half bloodhound and half camp commandant, and she could smell a missing cookie at thirty paces.
“Melody! Thank God you’re here!” Her deep voice boomed out, and my cheeks stained scarlet. I covered my eyes with my hand, but with all the mirrors about the place, even I couldn’t help but be aware of this evidence of my embarrassment. In spite of her drill sergeant’s voice, my aunt is a tiny woman with a powdered white face, with, as is the case it seems with too many older ladies , streaks of dark pink blusher across each cheek that give her a slightly clownish appearance. I had never in my life seen her without every curl in her blue-white hair in perfect order. Even now, when women were standing around the shop with their hair in every stage of the disarray necessary to the hairdressing process, there she stood picture perfect. She knew how much I hated that name, but at the worst possible times, she “forgot” and called me by it. I scowled, and muttered “M.J.” beneath my breath. Not that it would do any good. It never did.
Who knows. Maybe this time she heard me because as she strode through the crowd, she cleared the way, saying, “Make way for Sheriff Barton. Move back, everybody. Let M.J. through.” I’d have liked to have borrowed Pop’s clackers just so I could have dropped them.
As I moved through the room, a succession of scents assailed my nose: henna, bleach, permanent lotions, apple shampoo, coconut, hair spray. Six or seven women with long plastic bibs around their necks and hair in various stages of fixing followed us to the back like Aunt Hilda was the Pied Piper.
“Where is Mrs. Benson?” I asked. “She’s always here on Saturday afternoons.”
Aunt Hilda was the one to answer, of course. “She left earlier to go to the Watkins’ wedding, Mel…M.J.. I was just getting ready to leave myself when Trudy discovered the body.”
Even as I asked, “Where’s Trudy?” I spied the bleached platinum blond head in the crowd. I remembered Trudy from high school. Her dad was the football coach. He’d have died of cardiac arrest if he knew half his team was making it with his “little princess.” Not that Trudy was half as empty headed as she let most people believe. She just had an image to uphold, and she upheld it with a vengeance.
“Hi, M.J.,” she whispered in her best little-girl voice.
“What happened here?” I demanded, trying to make my voice as gruff as hers was soft.
Everyone started talking at once, so I shooed them back into the front room with the admonishment that someone had better get the permanent lotion out of Mrs. Adams’ hair, or she wasn’t going to have any hair left. “Anyone who wasn’t here at the time, go home. If you have anything to contribute, call me later this afternoon. Has anyone called Dr. Peterson yet?”
Aunt Hilda shook her head, then mutely went to the phone as if she had committed some kind of a corporal sin in forgetting. Actually I should have called him myself before I came. Like I said, my brain wasn’t exactly in gear that day. I was getting anxious to get to it. TV dicks always seem to have it so easy. It seemed to me like I’d been here forever, and there wasn’t a stiff in sight. I didn’t even know who it was yet.
Talk, Trudy!” I insisted. Unfortunately, she obliged.
Her high pitched giggle had grated on my nerves since kindergarten, and today it was at least an octave higher than usual. Every sentence was punctuated with it. I clenched my teeth and tried to concentrate on writing. Too bad I wasn’t Watkins. He might have enjoyed the show, as she tossed herself into the closest salon chair, and out of habit I suppose, hitched her already too short pink uniform halfway up her thigh, then proceeded to run her glossy red claws through the kinky curls, giggling all the while.
“Well, M.J., she shrilled, “you just can’t possibly imagine how busy we’ve been in here today. First I had to set Mrs. Watkins’ hair, and put a rinse on Charlene’s. Then I gave Carla and Wendy a trim before I put Charlene under the dryer, and…”
“Can it, Trudy,” I growled. “I don’t want a run down on all your customers since 8 a.m., at least not yet. I just want to know what’s going one here. Who’s dead? And where is she, or he?”
“I was just coming to that if you’d give me half a chance,” she sniffed, drawing her scarlet lips into a little bow, and tapping her spike heel onto the padded foot rest. How could the woman stand up all day in those awful shoes? Impatiently, I pulled the crease of my trouser leg down over my own sensible black Oxfords. At least I wouldn’t have varicose veins at forty.
I might have committed murder myself if Aunt Hilda hadn’t answered for her. “It’s Kit Shannon, M.J.. She’s back there in the tanning bed. I’ll show you.”
As it seemed that everyone was about to speak at once, I threw my hand up, and ordered them to be quiet and stay put. Aunt Hilda led the way back to the room with the dryers, a storage area for beauty supplies, and a large curtained off area where the tanning bed was. Not that I didn’t already know. I tried it once myself back last summer when Mrs. Benson first put it in. The town biddies hated it. Said it was a bed of iniquity, a toy of Satan. I just couldn’t lie still that long. Looked like today, if not Satan, then some other devil was at work. I moved to jerk the curtains apart to survey the devil’s handiwork. They didn’t open. They were still tied. I could only open them wide enough to peek through.
I shut my eyes tight in disbelief. Maybe the biddies were right. The fool was lying there in a pool of blood, looking for all the world like she was asleep on the beach at Monte Carlo, or whatever the place is that lets folks run around in their birthday suits. Absolutely the only thing she had on was the little pair of green goggles that protect the eyes from the light. Apparently that was all she ever wore in there, because the tan was even from one end to the other. Her clothes, the few there were, were neatly folded, and stacked in a pile so close to the curtain, I almost knocked it over with my foot.
I went back out front. “Did you get Doc?” I asked. Aunt Hilda nodded, so I went over to the phone and dialed the State Troopers. When they heard my report, they promised to send a forensics team over as quickly a possible, but it would be at least an hour. They’d worked with Doc before, and he would take care of the preliminaries. I phoned Donaldson, who was covering the desk, and warned him he’d better call Watkins to come back the minute his daughter said her “I do’s.” Finally, reluctantly, I went back to Trudy.
“What time did you put her in there?”
The giggle. “A little after one. I was supposed to fix her hair at two like I always do, you know how she like the cascades of those little ringlet curls up on top of her head with the bangs…”
“Trudy! Get this straight. I don’t give a fig how she liked her hair. Just tell me what happened.”
She gulped, and her eyes got huge. From the stony glares I got from her customers, you’d have thought I had taken a rubber hose to a ten year old. Before I could say any more, the screen door slammed again, and in walked Doc. Thank heaven.
Doc delivered me and about ninety percent of the rest of the folks living within fifty miles of Roseville. Nobody knew just how old he was, but he was as spry and alert as most men at thirty. Nothing got past Doc. I should know.
“She’s back here, Doc. I want you to watch me cut the ties on the curtain. I didn’t want anybody to touch her until you got here. Trudy, don’t move a muscle. My deputy will be here in just a few minutes to take over the questioning. Aunt Hilda, get everyone’s name, and set up a time for me to talk to them. You can’t leave yet, folks. I’m afraid the troopers are going to have to search you. If anyone knows of anyone who was here between the time Kit entered and the time Trudy found the body, and they’re not still here, please give Aunt Hilda their name to add to her list.”
“No man’s run his grimy hands over this body in seventy three years, young woman, and they’re not about to start now!” Mrs. Collins exclaimed. “And I need my hair combed out. I can’t have a bunch of strangers seeing me like this.”
There was a chorus of agreement to both statements.
“I’ll comb your hair out, Dora,” Corinne volunteered. “If Trudy can give me a hand as soon as they finish with her, I’m sure we can get everybody looking presentable before company comes.”
“Thanks, Corinne. Don’t worry, everybody,” I assured them. “They’re bringing another female officer. No one has to be searched by a man.” I could have sworn Mrs. Collins looked a bit disappointed, but maybe it was just my imagination. I escaped by dragging Doc back into the tanning bed area. I examined the curtain more closely this time for openings, but there were none.
“You mean you haven’t even examined the body? Are you sure she’s dead?”
“Oh yeah! She’s dead.” I slit open the curtain for him to see.
Not much shocked Doc, but she did. Her arms were crossed exactly as if she were lying in a coffin, and her naked body was completely encompassed by the sea of blood that had streamed from the slit across her throat.