Aunt Hilda’s Secret
I decided to have another look at the scene of the crime, not that I had any notion what I was looking for. The lab boys had gone over it thoroughly, but the results would still be a couple of days coming in. Murder didn’t seem to be as big a deal in Atlanta as it was in Roseville. They wouldn’t even work on the weekend for it, it seemed.
It was Sunday evening, so the shop was locked up tight. Church bells were ringing from the other end of Main Street, as I walked up to the door, and put the key Mrs. Benson had given me into the lock. I fumbled for the light switch, but even the light didn’t dispel the gloom that death seemed to have cast over the place. Yesterday’s odors had grown rank in the closed rooms, and I kept covering my mouth to keep myself from gagging. We’re supposed to be immune to that. Sure. I forced myself to walk through to the tanning room. Kit’s body had been removed to Doc’s for the autopsy, but the bloody outline of it had been traced by the troopers, and could still be seen in the tanning bed. Silently, almost reverently, I lifted a dryer hood, and sank back into the comfortable cushion with my eyes shut. Mrs. Benson had done a good job with her remodeling. Everything was done in pink and mauve, slightly gaudy for my taste, maybe, but probably perfectly appropriate for a beauty shop. The dryers and chairs, and of course the tanning bed, were the latest models available at the time of the remodel. Everything was made to be pleasing to the eye yet soft on the bottom. I rubbed my thighs. Nothing here was like the fussy Victorian chairs in her house, which no doubt were designed by Attila the Hun as far as their comfort level.
A rustling awakened me from my reverie. I had closed the door and locked it. I was sure of that. Before I was even aware of what I was doing, I had moved over to the doorway. My service revolver was in my hand.
“Police, hold it,” I called almost before I got through the doorway. I took the stance and leveled the revolver. “Stop, or I’ll shoot.”
“No, Melody, please don’t,” Aunt Hilda cried, dropping the giant bag she called her purse. Out spilled an ancient Bible with umpteen dozen scraps of papers, ribbon markers, and sermon notes that fluttered all around her. “It’s only me.”
“Aunt Hilda, what on earth are you doing here?” I holstered the revolver and glanced at my watch. “It’s 6:45. Why aren’t you at church?”
We both knelt to pick up the paper scraps. “I was just going when I saw the light go on. I thought I’d check it out. It could be the murderer coming back for some reason, and I ..I don’t know, I just wanted to help.” She stuffed the pile of scraps into her bag to sort out later..
“Check it out? How? Where did you get the key?” I handed her another half dozen ribbons, and reached under the counter to retrieve another.
“It’s my key.”
I handed her the last ribbon and a key I’d also found under the counter.
Aunt Hilda put the ribbon with the others in her bag. She stared at the key I had handed her. “This isn’t mine. See, I have my key on my ring.” She held up her key ring to show me, and handed the loose key back to me.
Putting it in my shirt pocket, I said, “Yours? Why do you have a key?” I stood and helped her up.
“Why shouldn’t I have a key to my own shop?” she asked.
“Yours!” I exclaimed. “I thought Mrs. Benson owned this place!”
She set down her things on the register counter, and readjusted her linen skirt. “You’re right. I should have said our shop. I only own half of it.”
“You own half this shop? How come I never knew it?”
Aunt Hilda shrugged. She leaned back into the front salon chair at Trudy’s station. “You never asked. It was only a little over a year ago that I bought my half. You were still in Philadelphia at the time, and we had no idea you’d be coming home so soon. Anyway, Berta need the cash to finish her remodeling, so we became partners. I didn’t broadcast it because Berta’s a prideful woman, and I didn’t want any gossip about her finances.”
It was unbelievable. She’d never said a word that even gave me a hint. “Let me see your key again.” When she pulled it out, I took the loose key and compared them, but they were no where near a match. Handing her key back to her, I returned the one I’d found to my pocket. I sat down on the stool at the register, and used the nail file there to even up the thumbnail I had bitten to a frazzle since this mess began. At least one thing made a little more sense. “That’s why Mrs. Benson could leave the shop yesterday. You were here. So, at least Trudy and Corinne know you’re her partner?”
She made a half-shrug. “I don’t know. You’d have to ask them.” The keys were returned to her bag. “I certainly never told them,” she said. “And I don’t hang around here any more than I ever did. They know Berta doesn’t charge me anymore, but they may think she’s just doing a favor for an old friend. I do tip them more to make up for their share.”
I looked up sharply. “Wait a minute. You still charge me for mine and Misty’s haircuts.”
Laughing, she lifted the heavy bag up onto her shoulder and stood to go. “Now Melody,” she said, “I didn’t know the Sheriff’s pay in this town was so bad that you couldn’t afford to have your hair done once in a while. Look, can we continue this conversation some other time? Bill is probably wondering why I never made it to church. I don’t want him and Misty worried about me.”
Glancing at my watch again, I agreed. “You’re right. Just one more question. Does Pop know about this business venture of yours?”
She clutched her Bible to her breast. “Certainly,” she said. “You know I have no secrets from Bill. In fact, a friend of his from the college helped us draw up the papers. He’s a young man your Pop and I have been meaning to have you meet. Melody, he’s quite handsome. I think you’ll like him.”
I ignored her matchmaking attempt. They were fairly common, although to be honest, it hadn’t been too bad since I’d come home. I was more worried right now about this secret investment. I’d have thought Aunt Hilda didn’t have any secrets from me either, but it appeared I was wrong. “Neither of you thought it was important enough to tell me about the deal when all this happened?”
She patted my shoulder like I was a petulant teenager. “Now, Melody,” she soothed, “you must remember that you haven’t really been home that much since this all began. I just never thought about it. That’s all. Does it really matter? Does it make me a suspect just because I own a part of the shop?”
“I don’t know, Aunt Hilda. It just might.”