#FRIDAYFREEBIE2: Chapter Two of my novel, Coffin of Light. For Chapter One, please see last Friday’s post. Each Friday, I’ll post another chapter, so I hope you’ll join me and follow along. God bless.
Saturday, p.m.: The Victim
The interviews weren’t going too well. The customers had all been seen, searched, and sent home. The search of the premises had come up empty so far even though they’d swept the entire place, and might as well have dusted the joint with a white glove. All that remained to do now was to talk with the employees.
I started with Corinne, admittedly because it seemed easiest. Corinne was about the same age as Trudy, but they were as different as night and day. Corinne had married right out of high school, and she had two small kids. Unfortunately, her husband had discovered he had leukemia a year or two ago, forcing her to return to work to support the family. In spite of the sadness that hung over her like an umbrella, Corinne was always cheerful, always listening to other people’s troubles as if she hadn’t a care in the world of her own. It was a quiet cheerful though, nothing like Trudy’s hysterics. I admit it. I liked Corinne.
But I couldn’t let that make any difference. “Did you know Ms. Shannon, Corinne?” I asked. Okay, my voice wasn’t quite as gruff as it had been earlier, but what can you expect? She wasn’t piercing my ears with her noise either.
She ran her fingers through her massive dark auburn curls. Maybe that’s a beautician’s habit, to be obsessed with your hair, who knows. “Not really, M.J..,” she replied. “Trudy usually did her hair. I talked to her here in the shop, of course, but mostly it was about superficial things. I don’t think I ever talked to her outside the shop.”
“Are you certain of that?”
“No, of course not. How could I be? How many people do you talk to every day? Do you remember them all?”
I laughed. “I’m not sure I could tell you everyone I talked to this morning,” I admitted. “But if anyone claimed to have seen you having words with her…”
The curls shook back and forth. “They won’t,” she insisted. “We never have.”
“Good. I believe you. Now, what time was it when she came in today?”
Winding a curl and pulling it across her cheek, she thought about it “I think it was right about one o’clock, but it may have been a minute or two after. I was just starting to put the curlers into Dora’s hair when she walked by.”
“Did she stop to talk to anyone, or did anyone talk to her?”
The tip of the curl went into her mouth. “Not that I saw,” she said, “but then, I wasn’t really watching.”
“So, you can’t tell me anything?”
“Not really. Sorry, M.J..”
“Did you know Ms. Shannon, Donna?”
Nodding .she replied, “Sure, Sheriff Barton. Of course I knew her. I washed her hair for her every Saturday for the last three years. She had the most beautiful hair. It wasn’t dyed or anything. It was just naturally thick and had all these wonderful waves, and hardly any gray at all. All I had to do was put a special conditioner on it once in a while to make it more manageable, but….
Her words tumbled out in a rush. It was obvious the kid had been around Trudy too long. “Right,” I said, holding up my hand to let her know I got the picture.
Even when she wasn’t nervous, which she obviously was right now, Donna tended to chatter too much, but at least it was at a normal pitch, and if you could keep it in check a bit, she could be quite funny. Trudy and Corinne loved to tease her, but really they liked her as much as the customers did.
“But the question is, did she talk to you much, Donna? What do you know about her?”
Her rouged cheeks reddened even more. She was so excited by this entire event that I don’t think reality had anywhere near come close to hitting home yet. She was just a kid who at the moment felt important because a lot of adults for once in her life were paying attention to her . I patted her shoulder, trying to calm her down a bit.
It worked some. Her pimply face screwed up like she was really thinking hard. “Pretty much,” she finally replied. “She was so pretty, I guess I talked to her a lot more though. I’d ask her about her makeup, and how she got her hair to shine so much like it did, and what kind of makeup kept her skin so soft, and things like that. Most of the time she’d just laugh, and tell me anyone could be beautiful if they had enough money, and enough of what she called “bottled beauty.” She always tipped me real good though, so I think she liked me.”
Who wouldn’t like blind adoration? The way she went on and on about how beautiful Kit was. It was a bit sickening. She was like a puppy looking for a Mama. And no one so far had described Kit in those terms. Donna was a cosmetology student from the vocational education center of the high school. She wasn’t more than seventeen, a bit on the plump side, and it would probably take a lot more than a few “bottles” before anyone could ever describe her as beautiful. Heavy cosmetics sought without much success to cover her rough blotchy skin. Her brown eyes could have been quite attractive, but they were hidden behind large thick glasses. She was good at her job though, I’ll grant her that. She’d come in second place in the district competition last spring, and when her plump fingers massaged my scalp, I’d always felt like I’d been treated to an afternoon in Paradise.
I nodded, taking in, I’m sure, at least half of her words. “I’m sure she did like you, Donna,” I mumbled. “Did she ever talk about anybody she didn’t like? Did she say anything about being afraid of anyone, or of having a problem of any kind?”
She removed her glasses, and bit one of the earpieces between her teeth. Finally she shook her head. “No, Ma’am. Not that I can remember. She was always kind of bold, and flashy like. I don’t think she would’ve let anybody see it even if she was afraid.”
“You’re probably right about that,” I agreed. “Did you talk to her at all today?”
“Just to say hi. She always tanned first, then got her hair done, so I didn’t get much of a chance.” She put her glasses back on.
“Did Kit speak to you? I mean, did she seem okay?”
“Yeah, she said hi, just like always. But that’s all. I wasn’t feeling too good, and I’d just come out of the bathroom.” She blushed. “I threw up. Trudy teased me that me and my boyfriend Bobby’d been having too much fun, and the stork was gonna soon be knocking at my door. It’s not true, Sheriff. Honest. I probably ate something bad for supper last night, that’s all.” She gazed ruefully at her too plump fingers. “Sometimes I eat too much,” she confessed.
“Don’t we all,” I sympathized. “So that was the last time you saw Kit?”
She nodded. Tears began to brim behind the glasses, like maybe it was finally hitting her that Kit was gone forever.
“Did you ever see her arguing with anyone, not just today, I mean?”
She looked around nervously to see if anyone could hear us. They couldn’t. Satisfied that they couldn’t, she took off the glasses again and wiped her eyes. Then she cleared her throat. Finally she whispered, “Yes.”
My ears pricked up. At last I was getting somewhere. “Oh. Who?”
Her eyes were cast down. I could hardly hear her. “You, Sheriff Barton,” she answered.
I dropped my pencil. “What,” I exclaimed. “You’re lying. I never…wait…when did you see us, I mean, when do you think you saw us arguing?”
“Tuesday afternoon,” she replied, getting a little louder as she spoke. “I was on my way here from school.
I laughed, picking my heart back up out of my stomach. “Of course. You did. I remember now. It was a pretty one sided argument though. I gave her a two dollar parking ticket down by Mrs. Whitney’s boutique. She was having a fit about it. She swore that the meter still had twenty minutes on it when she went inside, and she’d been in there less than fifteen. Actually, we’ve had several other complaints about those meters, so I tore up the ticket. But she didn’t give me a chance to explain before she started on her rant.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Ms. Barton. I didn’t mean to…”
I waved away her apology. She was just being honest. At least somebody was admitting to seeing something for a change. “Thank you for your time, Donna. If you think of anything else, please don’t hesitate to call me.”
After Donna and Corinne left, the only one remaining was Trudy. It seemed obvious that she was twisting Donaldson around her little finger, so I forced myself to take over her questioning. “You said earlier you were supposed to fix Ms. Shannon’s hair at two, Trudy. Why didn’t you?”
Her eyes widened. “Why, I suppose because she was dead, Sheriff. How could I?”
I pulled up Mrs. Benson’s stool from behind her cash register and put my feet up. The troopers were busy putting all their fingerprint cards in order and packing up their stuff. “But how could you know she was dead then?” I asked. “You didn’t call me until almost 2:45. Did you wait forty-five minutes to call me?”
She was either frightened, or giving a darned good imitation of it. “No, no,” she said, her giggle at this point long past hysterical. “We called you the minute we found her. I just meant she didn’t come out because she was probably already dead, and I was just so busy I didn’t notice until later.”
That was reasonable. I reminded myself not to let my dislike of her color my judgment. She was probably telling the truth. I nodded. “All right, then. Exactly what time did you turn the machine off?”
“I didn’t. The timer was set for one hour, and all she had to do was push the start button when she got here, so it must have gone off at two o’clock or just a few minutes after.”
I sat straight up. “You’re sure you didn’t turn it back on?”
“No, of course not. Why would I? An hour is really pushing it, but she had such a great tan already, she could get away with it. But I wouldn’t put anybody in there for more than that, no matter how good a tan they had. Did you know they have beds now that will tan you as well in ten to twenty minutes?”
I ignored that last part. That was just typical Trudy. But about the timer, either she was really surprised, or she should win an Oscar. “Good question. But if you didn’t do it, who did? Somebody sure did.” I tapped my borrowed pencil on the cash register. “Any ideas who?” I looked around as if my culprit might confess to the deed, but of course no one was left here to confess even had they wanted to.
Trudy ignored me. “How do you know that?” she demanded. “Are you Sherlock Holmes in drag, or what?”
I glared at her. “Don’t be a twit, Trudy. The body was still hot, and the blood was still like water. It doesn’t even take a Watson to know the machine hadn’t been off for over an hour when Doc got here.” That was a mistake. I should never have explained myself.
She laughed and managed to calm herself down. Out of habit, I examined the desk in front of me while I tried to think. The only things there were a cheap rhinestone hair clasp, a comb, and a couple of odd earrings; nothing that seemed out of place. I glanced at Trudy’s station. Again I didn’t see anything odd, but then I’m not sure I would notice. Trained observer. Bull. You have to know what you’re looking for. “Do you, by any chance, have your own straight razor?” I asked.
It didn’t work. She was ready for me this time. “Of course I do. Everybody here does.” She pulled a lip gloss and rouged her already crimson lips. “You should know that,” she said as she ran her pinkie around the edge of her bottom lip. “After all, Corinne uses hers on that Butch you wear at least once a month.” It was a good thrust. My hair was bobbed short, but could in no way be described as a Butch, and she knew it. Like I said, her head wasn’t exactly empty.
I cleared my throat. “Right. Then where is it? Hand it over.”
She shrugged, and tossed her lipstick into her tray. “It should be right over there in the cleaning tray with all the other things I used today.”
She put the pinkie nail between her bottom front teeth. The polish was scraped off there, so evidently it was a regular habit. “I used it several time this morning, but I can’t remember when the last time was. When I check the appointment book, I can probably tell you pretty close, if it’s that important.”
“It is, but you can do it a little later. Does it have your name on it?”
“Just my initials.”
The forensics people were already beginning to gather up the instruments, and to dump the trash can contents, used aprons, fingerprint samples, and anything else of interest they could find into their labeled plastic evidence bags, to be taken back to their lab for analysis. Give them an A for effort.
I picked out a bag labeled razor, and held it up to the light. It had her initials in a curlicue script on the base of the handle. I thought maybe I detected a stain that might have been blood near the hinge between the blade and handle, but it was probably just my imagination. “Do people around here ever use other people’s things, like their razors, for instance?” I tossed the bag back into the trooper’s tray.
“Sure they do. You know how it is in a place like this when you get busy. If you’re in a hurry, you get desperate, and you grab whatever’s at hand. For the most part though, we like our own things, and everybody here is pretty honest. Oh, I remember now. It was a little after ten thirty when I spiked the top of young Alan Adams’ hair. I think that was the last time I used the razor today. I hate spiking hair, and I had to use so much hairspray. The razor got all gunked up, so I threw it into the bin. I’m almost positive I didn’t use it again after that. It’s Donna’s job to clean the instruments, but we kept her so busy washing hair, she probably only got around to the things we were hollering for. Look, can’t I go home now, M.J.? I’m so tired, and my head’s about to split. I promise, I won’t, as they say, leave town.”
I turned to the trooper. “Has she been searched?” He nodded. “Then go ahead, but don’t take your phone off the hook, or anything. I may think of some more questions.”
She giggled again, and I cringed. “I wouldn’t do that, M.J.. I’ve got too many fellows needing to get through.”
“I’m going home too,” I called to the officers. “If anyone wants me, you can call the office. They’ll get me.”
* * * * *
As I stepped up onto the porch, voices came at me from all directions. Aunt Hilda pushed open the screen door. “What’s happening at the shop, Melody?” she demanded.
“Can I help you with this ruckus, M.J.?” Pop asked, wheeling his wheelchair from the back yard. The hoe across his lap threatened to knock over Aunt Hilda’s prize chrysanthemums, so I stepped back off the porch to take it from his hands, but I never got the chance. Misty came bounding out the door, and leaped into my arms. “Mommy, mommy, did you kill the bad man with your gun?”
Aunt Hilda gasped. “I’m sorry, Melody. I thought she was taking her nap when Bill and I were talking.”
“Don’t worry about it. She’s bound to hear. “ I kissed her pudgy cheek, and put her up across my shoulders. “You can’t protect them forever.” I took the hoe and leaned it against the rail. “How are the pumpkins, Pop?”
“Great. The man’s coming to get them tomorrow. He bought everything I had left.”
“Have you had anything to eat yet?” Aunt Hilda asked.
“Not a thing, Aunt Hilda. And I’m starved. I looked at the grease burgers the troopers brought in, and I just couldn’t stomach them. Any messages from the station?”
“Just Mr. Watkins saying he was on the job. I’ll get you a plate. I’ve got chicken and dumplings, and some fresh broccoli with cheese sauce. You’ll feel a lot better after you eat.”
“Thanks. I’ll get Misty ready for bed.” I disentangled her little fingers from my hair, and lowered her down onto my hip. “Can you imagine Sherlock Holmes ever having to give a three-year-old a bath?”
Aunt Hilda laughed. Maybe not, but he might have been a happier man if he had. Then Watson wouldn’t have had to listen to that infernal violin screeching all the time.” She kissed both mine and Misty’s cheeks. “Like they say, nothing like a few wet hugs to dust the cobwebs and brighten the spirits.”
“Yeah, but how are they for solving mysteries?”
She pinched Misty’s cheek, and Misty leaned forward to give her another kiss. “You never know,” she said, “but I’d say it can’t hurt.”
Pop and I sat at the table. I did feel a bit better with a plate of Aunt Hilda’s dumplings under my belt. Pop had been Sheriff of Roseville for over twenty-two years until one day he had gone to Atlanta to take in a prisoner and been side swiped by a drunk driver. Atlanta had been spared the cost of a trial, and Pop had been spared the cost of a lot of shoe leather. For once the drunk driver hadn’t gotten off scot free though. He’s been sitting in the State pen ever since, and he’ll be there for several more years yet.
That wheelchair hadn’t slowed up Pop’s mind or his hands one iota though. He raised pumpkins, carved decorative ducks as well as working decoys, and even taught criminology courses two nights a week at the community college up the highway.
“Pop, it’s weird,” I began. “That place was like a zoo today. People were going in and out of that room regularly all day. And people were under the dryers almost continuously.”
“Well, Honey, he said. “You know what they say; the best place to hide is in a crowd.”
I stuffed in my last bit of Aunt Hilda’s thick buttered bread. “But,” I choked out, “how could anyone possibly untie the curtains, go in, slit her throat, retie the curtains, and crawl out again?” A large gulp of water let me continue. “And they did it all without anybody seeing anything. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Pop shrugged his powerful shoulders. “Then it didn’t happen,” he said.
I exploded. “What do you mean it didn’t happen. Of course it happened. She’s dead, isn’t she?” Picking up my knife and staring at it, I said, “Unless you think it’s possible she slit her own throat, and threw the knife out. I suppose somebody could have picked it up off the floor and tossed it back into the wash pan without thinking, and now they’re too scared to admit it.” I continued to stare at the knife. “If it wasn’t too bloody, I suppose it’s barely possible.” I laid down the knife. “But Pop, how could it have not been bloody? She didn’t wipe it on anything in the tanning room.”
Pop laughed at my lunatic ravings. “Pretty dramatic way of committing suicide, don’t you think? Well, Kit was dramatic. That’s for sure. It’s a possibility, an awfully far-fetched one, but anyway. I guess any theory is better than no theory for a starting point. No, what I really meant was how do you know no one saw anything? Even when they want to help, people don’t always tell the police just because they know something. They think it’s not important, or none of their business, or maybe they don’t even realize the significance of what they know. Most of the time it’s pure luck if you stumble on the right question that triggers their memory and gets them talking.
“I guess I’ll just have to take the time to hit on that question then.” I pushed my empty plate away. “Pop, what do you know about Kit Shannon? You said she was dramatic. That sounded like a personal observation. I didn’t know you even knew her. She moved here after I left, so I didn’t really know her at all except to nod to her in the street. Tell me about her.”
“She was an evil woman,” Aunt Hilda answered for him as she brought in huge slabs of pumpkin pie topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. “Evil as they come. Why, she even tried to get her hooks into your Pop, of all people, when she first came here. I swear she’s chased every man in pants this side of the Mississippi.”
Pop filled his mouth with ice cream, and muttered something that sounded like “well, at least she still considered him a man.” I still don’t know if the “she” he was referring to was Aunt Hilda or Kit Shannon, but his anger surprised me. I don’t know why. I don’t think I’d ever thought of Pop as any less a man since he’d been in the chair, but then, does any daughter ever think of her father as a man at all, a man who needs a date, needs the affection of a beautiful woman?
Sighing, I waved my spoon at him. “Okay, Pop. I heard Aunt Hilda. Now you tell me. What was she like?”
He laughed. “Is this a new technique I missed at the police academy? Do you generally serve pie and ice cream with your third degree? All right. I’ll get serious. She was like no one I’d ever met, M.J.. She was dramatic, all right, but I’d never believe she could commit suicide in a million years. She was so full of life. I met her at a faculty party, and she just kind of threw herself into my lap, and wrapped a gold silk scarf around my neck while she was doing a sort of harem dance. She danced around me for a good ten minutes. At first, I was a bit embarrassed, but when she kissed me at the end of her dance, it was like I was alive again for the first time since I woke up in that hospital. I’ll always be grateful to her for that.”
“But she hurt you, Bill,” Aunt Hilda exclaimed. “She dumped you like a hot potato when she got a bigger fish to fry.”
Now Pop was truly angry. “So what! That doesn’t make her evil. It makes her smart!” He sighed, and pushed his empty pie plate away. “Look, it’s true, M.J.. But it never would have worked between us. She knew that, and I knew it. I’d always lived by the rules, and she simply didn’t believe any existed. It was a dream on my part, but it felt great while it lasted. Don’t condemn her on my account.”
“Hrmmph,” Aunt Hilda pulled the dishes off the table, and practically threw them into the sudsy water. She was muttering under her breath, and I’m not sure exactly what she was saying, and I wouldn’t want to slander a woman who has been teaching Sunday School at the Main Street Baptist Church for going on forty-two years.