Here’s Coffin of Light, Chapter 3. In case you’re just joining us, chapters 1 & 2 can be found in the last two Friday’s posts. Hope you enjoy.
Interview with Mrs. Benson
Last night I’d learned a lot I didn’t know, but probably not much that had to do with murder. Ah well, who was that detective who was always spouting off about how important it was to get into the victim’s head? The one who always said it was more important to learn everything you could about how they would think than worrying about things like fingerprints, or ashes, or whatever? I think it was Hercule Poirot. Said if you knew the why, the who would come easily. Good thing, if that was true. I was quickly coming to the conclusion that beauty parlors were the cleanest places on earth, or at least this one was. Yes, there were fingerprints galore, but none that seemed to mean anything, and as for ashes, the place was impossible. They clean everything before and after they use it! My little gray cells felt like big gray cinderblocks.
I’d been interviewing Mrs. Benson in her home for over half an hour now, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. She was about the same age as Aunt Hilda. In fact, I believe they had gone to school together as young girls, but they were not at all alike. Aunt Hilda was small in stature, but big in spirit. Mrs. Benson, on the other hand, was a tall, big boned woman, but she was a ditherer, to say the least. She had a curious habit of drawing back when you spoke to her, as if you might try to hit her or something. Her room was cluttered with figurines and knickknacks that had probably cost a fortune, but I couldn’t describe as anything but junk.
Somehow I felt that I learned more about her from the faded pictures that covered the walls, and left very little of the aging paint showing. I could easily recognize the many pictures of Harold, Mrs. Benson’s favorite grandson, who had attended law school at Harvard, and now worked for Senator Russell. It was said the Senator was grooming him to take his place when he retired in three years, and was even now feeling out the party for possibilities of a place for him on a presidential ticket by the end of the decade. But that may have all just been Mrs. Benson’s beauty parlor prattle.
Another picture that caught my eye was of Mrs. Benson and Aunt Hilda in hoop skirted Cotillion gowns smiling shyly at their monkey suited dates. I easily recognized Edgar Benson, Mrs. Benson’s deceased husband, but I’d have to ask Aunt Hilda about the other one. As well as I could tell in the sepia photo, he was a real blond hunk. I’d have to tease her I didn’t know she’d been such a wild child in her youth.
The rest of the pictures were the enshrined ancestors of the Bensons, most of them in the faded gray uniforms of the confederacy, but a few were pen and ink sketches of Benson relatives apparently as far back as the revolution.
Turning my back on the pictures, I contemplated my next question. I was trying to be gentle with Mrs. Benson, but her evasions were getting frustrating, and I’ve never pretended to be sensitive. What little sensitivity I had, I think I lost in Philly. But she was Aunt Hilda’s friend, so I was determined to try.
“Can you please tell me what time it was when you left the shop, Mrs. Benson?” I asked once again, I think for the fourth time.
“Well, let me see…I’m not really sure. Hildy could probably tell you that better than I could. It was so busy, and I had so much to do. Charlene asked me to come by and make a last check on everybody’s hair before she walked down the aisle, you know. Did you know she’s my late husband, Edgar’s, second cousin? A lovely girl, and such a beautiful bride, M.J.. You should have seen her. I’ve known her all her life, even rocked her on my knee as a babe, but I swear I’ve never seen her look so lovely. I must say, Trudy outdid herself on her hair. Trudy’s such an amazing hairdresser, and I’m so lucky to have her. That’s a fact. She could have gotten a job anywhere, but you don’t know how much work it is to do someone’s hair up like that, especially when they’ve got as much hair as Charlene does. I mean, really, all those curls. It was a good thing she was having a late afternoon wedding, or we’d have never made it. As it was, we were lucky we finally got her out of there at one so she could have at least a few minutes to get over to the house to wash before going to the church.”
Somehow I managed to register that last sentence in spite of the muddle. “Wait a minute,” I said. “You mean Charlene was still in the shop at one?”
Mrs. Benson cocked her head, but said nothing, only nodded her head slightly.
“She was in the shop when Kit came in?” I repeated. I’ve never felt so stupid. Why had I assumed she’d been long gone when the murder took place?
“Well, I don’t know,” Mrs. Benson replied. “She could have been. Why?” She paced back and forth, twisting her crocheted lace handkerchief until it was shredded to bits. “Charlene didn’t even know her,” she insisted. “She didn’t have anything to do with this mess. How could she? Besides, she had other things on her mind. She probably never even noticed that Kit came in. Goodness, she was getting married in just a couple of hours. Why would she pay any attention to that husband stealing hussy? That’s absurd, and you have no right to talk such foolishness.”
I stared at my notepad. She was sure worked up. I hadn’t said doodle to warrant this outburst. I wanted to kick myself though, for the slip-up. I’d cut Trudy off from what I’d thought was just prattle, and maybe I’d missed something terribly important.
“Please calm down, Mrs. Benson,” I said. “There’s probably nothing at all to get excited about.” It seemed impossible to say she was pacing in that crowded room, but I don’t know quite how else to describe it. If it’d been me, I’d have had bumps and bruises on every knee and elbow, but in spite of her size, she moved through with complete ease, back and forth. “Maybe you’re right, and Charlene never saw her.” I bit the end of my pencil, and tried to say as offhand as possible. “Do you know where they went? On their honeymoon, I mean? I may need to ask her a few questions.”
It didn’t work. She got even more upset and shook a chubby finger in my face.
“I don’t know, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did, Sheriff. How dare you think a sweet girl like Charlene could have anything to do with this horrible affair. I just won’t hear any more of it, even if you are Hilda’s niece. Your father would be ashamed of you, young lady, for making such insinuations. Please leave now before I lose my temper.”
She hadn’t paused once during her tirade. “Please, Mrs. Benson,” I said, trying my best to soothe her, “I didn’t have any such notion. Perhaps she knows nothing at all. And you’re right, it would be a shame to have to pull her back from her honeymoon, but I may not have any choice. We’re talking about murder.”
My words didn’t calm her in the least, so I decided to leave and continue my questioning another day. I wasn’t in the mood anyway. I’d let a witness to murder leave town without questioning her. Suddenly it was like a hundred flashbulbs went off in my face all at the same time. Maybe I never should have let them get married at all! This was a murder investigation, and a husband can’t be made to testify against his wife, or vice versa. Could I be sure it was a coincidence that the biggest wedding of the year, and the first murder in Roseville in over a decade had occurred on the same day? I didn’t know, but I’d sure better find out!