Trudy was waiting for me when I got back to the office. There was a message from Watkins that he had to check on a fender-bender down by Leedom’s Drugstore, and he would be back as soon as possible. Since Donaldson wasn’t due in until four, Trudy had the run of the place. Fortunately, we’re not quite so dumb as to leave out important papers where anyone might get their hands on them. If she’d been looking for anything before I came, I couldn’t tell it. She’d made herself at home at my desk though, and was busy filing her nails. After my goof, I was so full of humble pie, I didn’t even care, at least not too much.
“Trudy, I’m sorry. I owe you an apology for cutting you short the other day. You were trying to tell me something that might have been very important, and I didn’t let you. Can we start over?”
“It’s all right, M.J.. I know I tend to run on sometimes.” She was dressed more casually today, jeans and a V-neck sweater, but they were designer jeans, she still had her spike heels on, and there wasn’t a flaw anywhere in her platinum curls or make-up.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee or a cola?”
“A Coke would be great, M.J., diet if you have it.
I looked through the small, aged refrigerator Pop had found some years ago at a flea market. Amazingly, there was one diet cola in it, though to my knowledge neither Donaldson nor Watkins drank diet drinks, and I sure didn’t. In fact, Jim pretty much limits himself to fruit juice. “I do want to go over the events of the day again with you in as much detail as you want, but first I want you to tell me anything you know about Kit Shannon. I’ll do my best to try to keep my mouth shut and let you tell it in your own way. First of all, did you like her?”
I handed her the Diet Coke.“ “Not much,” she admitted. “She was the kind of woman most men love, at least for a while, until they see how selfish she is, but most women tend to dislike her right off the bad, mainly, because when Kit was around, men didn’t seem to notice any other female was in the room, even if they were actually younger or prettier. She had a presence though, I’ll give her that. When she was in the room, it was like you were with a movie star. Even in a crowded room where no one knew her, in just a few minutes she had center stage. It was kind of amazing to watch.”
Scribbling as fast as I could, I nodded for her to go on. She seemed much more subdued today. I guess the shock was finally getting to her. Sometimes people do have a delayed reaction like that. When she continued, I knew I was right.
“She was a lot like me, you know,” she whispered. “Only more so. Working at the shop, I had to learn to listen, really listen, to other people’s problems. And it’s taught me I wasn’t quite the center of the universe I thought I was. Kit never learned that.” Her sentences were still punctuated by her giggle, but somehow today it didn’t seem quite so grating. “She thought that if she wanted something, that was excuse enough to take it, no matter who it belonged to, or how much it cost.”
I popped the cap on my own Coke. “You know, Mrs. Benson called her a husband stealer,” I said. “Have you got any idea whose husband she might have been talking about?”
“Gosh, it probably could have been half the husbands in town,” she giggled.
She nodded. “I guess you could call her something of a nymph. Sometimes she just couldn’t seem to help herself. Most of the time it didn’t really seem to matter to her who it was, or even what they looked like. She just had to have a man.” She sipped her Coke.
“How about anybody connected to the shop?”
Lowering her eyes, she murmured, “Do I really have to answer that, M.J.?”
“No, but I’m going to find out one way or another, and I’d appreciate it if you’d save me the trouble.”
Slowly she sighed. “Okay. She had a thing with Corinne’s husband, Jimmy Lee, but I swear to you, Corinne doesn’t know.”
I drew up Watkins’ chair. Actually it was far more comfortable than mine was. I was still using the same one Pop had used for all those years. “You’re sure about that?”
“Yeah, I’d know in a sec if Corinne even had an inkling. She’s my best friend, M.J., really the only real girlfriend I ever had. I only found out myself a few months back by accident. One of my guys took me out to that new place about six miles up the highway. I don’t know if you know it. It’s just the other side of the county line. It’s called The Swamp, and they have pretty good bands there on Friday and Saturday nights. Anyway, I caught them snuggling in the back corner booth. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell Corinne. She absolutely dotes on that man, and he promised me faithfully that he wouldn’t see her any more.” She played with the opal ring on her finger. “To be honest with you though, I think he did. I finally had to tell Kit to knock it off and leave him be.”
I shook my head. “But Jimmie Lee has leukemia. I’d heard he probably won’t live much longer. Why would Kit be interested in him?”
She shrugged and crossed her long legs. “So, when did she ever let a little thing like that stop her? I told you she just loves men. And especially men with money who were willing to throw some of it away on her.”
“But Jimmie Lee doesn’t have any money. That’s why Corinne had to come back to work.”
Trudy laughed. “But that’s the kicker. Don’t you see? Kit didn’t know that at first. She thought he’d inherited a bundle back when his Mama died instead of just that monster of a house that will take ten time more to fix than they’ll ever get out of it. And the heating bills, you wouldn’t believe! She giggled. “Actually, that’s how I got Kit to back off and leave him alone. I convinced her he didn’t have a dime.”
I raised my brows. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. They weren’t rolling money or anything, but they weren’t quite ready for the welfare rolls either. True, Jimmie Lee could only work part time now, but he was still an engineer, and he must be pulling down pretty good money, and Corinne had told me their company insurance plan was a Godsend.
Giggling again, she winked. “So, I had to lie a little bit. But it was worth it to see the look on her face. I let her know flat out that she wasn’t even going to be getting rhinestones from Jimmie Lee, much less diamonds.”
As my eyes widened, she nodded. “Yes, if you want to know, we’d had it out once and for all, and I’m sure that somebody or another heard us and is bound to tell you about it sooner or later, but that was over a month ago, and we’ve actually gotten along better since. I think she liked me for standing up to her. I just wasn’t going to let her do that to Corinne. Money’s the only thing that spoke to Kit.”
Fingering a ruby colored tennis bracelet, she sat staring at her wrist. I could almost see the wheels in her head changing direction. “Have you ever seen her jewelry collection? She asked. She shuddered. “Absolutely terrible taste. She liked lots of large flashy jewels that screamed money, but they seldom ever complemented the outfit she had on. Same way with her clothes. She bought them for the price tag, not the quality.”
Her beautician’s eye scanned my plain brown and tan police uniform, and obviously found it wanting.
“I love jewelry and clothes too,” she said. “But I’m pretty particular about quality. I like to get the most for my money. How about you, M J.? I don’t think I’ve seen you in anything but that god-awful police get-up since you came back to town. Wouldn’t you like me to help you pick out something pretty and put a few curls in that bob for you? You could be quite a doll with a little work, you know. With those green eyes, I could make your face so stunning, heads would turn whenever you walked in a room too. Isn’t it funny? I’m in the business of setting up competition for myself, and yet I love it. I’m like an artist who can’t help but paint. I’d enjoy painting you though. I can’t say I enjoyed it that much with Kit. Everything was too artificial with her.
I heard all the prattle, but I pretty much ignored it all. My mind was too busy with new info. I was filling my book with notes. “That’s interesting,” I commented absently, “There wasn’t any jewelry at all in the tanning room. I thought it was just because she left it at home since she was going to be tanning.” Robbery as a motive. “Did you happen to notice exactly what jewelry she was wearing when she came in?”
“None at all? Jewelry I mean? Gosh, no. I’m sorry. I don’t know what she was wearing. She went past me so fast, and she went straight back to the tanning bed. I was so busy getting Charlene out the door, and my Dad dropped by just about then to bring us some sandwiches from the deli for lunch since we hadn’t been able to eat earlier because it was so crazy and… I’m sorry, M.J., I just didn’t pay any attention. I can’t believe she didn’t have any on though. She always did.”
“Wait a minute. I seem to remember Corinne cleaning the bed for me with some kind of spray cleaner or something before I used it. If you didn’t follow her back, who did?”
I thought I had something, but she shot that theory down before it left the gun. “Nobody. I knew she was coming. I always had Donna clean the bed beforehand. I even had the timer already set so that all she had to do was push the start button. She liked to make an entrance, but she didn’t like to wait..
“But you were busy. Are you sure you remembered to clean it ahead that day?”
“Absolutely. Donna cleaned it about eleven, I think. About Kit’s jewelry, do you think that’s why somebody killed her?”
“It could be.” I swigged my Coke. “Where would she have put it? Did she carry a case for it?”
She leaned back and put her spike heels up on my desk, but almost immediately she glanced at me from lowered lids like she was somehow asking permission. By ignoring it, I guess I gave it to her. Anyway, she seemed to take it that way. “Are you kidding? Kit was a complete slob. She just tossed her clothes across the floor, and she treated her jewelry exactly the same way. One day, one of her rings, a real big sapphire, went rolling across the floor, and she came marching out practically naked and shrieked like a two-year-old. She had us all down on our hands and knees searching the back room for it. I thought Mrs. Collins was going to have a heart attack right on the spot.”
The picture she painted was so funny, I’m sure my laugh was just as bad as hers usually was. Then I remembered something strange. “Hum. Think back, Trudy. When you peeked through the curtain and found her body, what did you see? Her clothes, I mean.”
“They…you’re right…They were neatly folded in a pile. I can’t believe it. She must have turned over a new leaf.”
“Or someone turned it over for her.”
Her voice took on its little girl whisper. “You mean the murderer?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. You’re sure she never folded her clothes? Absolutely sure?”
She shook her head. “Not that I ever noticed. The curtain doesn’t go all the way to the floor, you know, so if you’re coming back from the storeroom, you can see them there on the floor. They were usually just heaped in a pile.
“Had anyone else ever mentioned her, um. Untidiness?”
She sat forward in Pop’s chair, and tapped my knee with her nail file. “M.J., you amaze me sometimes. How can you have been through what you have in your life and still be so naïve? It’s a beauty parlor. Of course we mentioned it. We mention everything about everybody. It’s nothing personal. It’s just part of the fun.”
“Right.” I chewed my knuckles. “I guess I’ve given you guys lots of fun since I came back.”
She shook the platinum curls. “No more than anyone else in town, M.J.. You’re being too sensitive. Don’t you know by now that people in this town love your family? We talk, but we’re never mean. We wouldn’t intentionally hurt anybody.”
I sighed. “You’re probably right. Look, are you in any hurry? If you are, we can continue this another time.”
“No, I’ve got plenty of time,” she said. “My car’s broken down, so my Dad’s been driving me a lot lately, but he has football practice this afternoon, so I have his car until six o’clock.”
“Good. Then let’s get back to the case.”
It was a long interview, but amazingly, it went well. I’d always known Trudy was bright beneath the façade, but somehow I never thought I’d get to see it. We’d talked today. Really talked. She said she’d learned to listen at the shop. Well, maybe today I’d learned, at least a little bit more about it too.