Back at the office at last, Watkins lit up his cigar and reclined in his chair with this feet up on the desk. Donaldson was much younger than him, and hadn’t yet learned to relax on the job when the opportunity arose. He paced back and forth, and intermittently hopped up on his desk, but he was too hyper to stay put for long. “All right, guys. It’s late and I need to get home. Let’s try to get organized a bit. Here’s the autopsy report I got from Doc. You should read it when you can. The State police report says, Name: Kathryn Elaine Shannon, female, Caucasian, Age 36, weight, 123, no adult priors. What about the next of kin, Sam? Have they been located yet?”
“Yeah. Her only relative is an aunt in Jackson, Mississippi, but she doesn’t want to come up to identify the body unless we’re going to foot the bill. No love lost there, I suppose.
I sipped my Coke. “No chance the aunt was here on Saturday?”
He shook his head. “None. She was addressing a group of her local garden club. The Jackson police have already located five impeccable witnesses to presence at the luncheon. I told them to just forget it.”
“Okay, then. Doc says that either the slit in her throat or the cyanide in her bloodstream would have been enough to kill her. Let’s hope I haven’t pulled another boner in having you guys dump all those bottles. I really don’t think so though. Nobody fixed her hair, so that lets out all the shampoos, conditioners, perms, etc.. Doc says cyanide can be absorbed through the skin. That’s why I wanted us to be so careful not to touch that tanning bed glass. The only liquid I can think of that we have to worry about would be the tanning bed cleaner. Did either of you find that bottle? It would have been transparent, so you wouldn’t have dumped it. It wasn’t in the curtained area, and I didn’t see it in the sink or closet.”
I looked at each of them in turn, but they each shook their head. “All right, Sam, first call Donna, the shampoo girl, and find out where she left it.” Donaldson grabbed a lollipop from his desk. He’d given up smoking about six months ago, and it was driving him crazy, so he’d taken a tip from Kojack.
“Jim, I hate to tell you this, but you need to go back to the shop, and check every inch of it once more from top to bottom. You don’t need to destroy anything this time, but if that cleaning spray is there, I want it found. I walked over and patted his shoulder. “Thank heaven there’s no back door to that shop, or I guess you’d need to check every bottle in the neighborhood. I guess these old Southern buildings that the stores back onto one another have that advantage.”
Sam agreed. “At least we know that someone we don’t know about didn’t slip in and out a back way.”
Sam always was an optimist. I swear he could see a bright side in a bottle of ink, but this time he was right. I nodded. “That’s it.”
“Any word from the lab boys?”
“Yeah,” Jim answered. “They said Trudy’s fingerprints were all over the razor handle, and they found a partial of Donna’s near the tip, but it wasn’t where it would have been if she’d used it. More likely, she just touched it putting something else in the tray.”
As I nodded, he blurted, “but if you ask me, it just proves that Trudy didn’t do it either. If she had, you know darned good and well she’d have wiped her prints off.”
But I shook my head. “Not if she was smart, she wouldn’t. Her prints had a perfect right to be there. Why would she wipe them off? That would just draw attention to herself.”
I walked over to the wooden coatrack behind the door and pulled down both Jim’s and my jackets. I tossed his to him. “After you get through, Jim, I want you to meet Sam at Kit’s apartment. If you find anything suspicious, or even halfway interesting, I want to hear about it. Remember, it’s remotely possible she could have taken or been given the poison before she came to the shop, so be careful.”
Sam had gotten a busy signal. He promised to try again from Kit’s, and call Jim from there with her answer. I just hoped the telephone company hadn’t disconnected Kit’s service. Donaldson was nearly out the door before Sam got his jacket on. “Wait a minute, Guys. One more thing before you go. What’s the word on Kit’s will?”
In a matter of seconds, Jim had moved back to his desk and pulled out a file. He tossed me his report. “I talked to Dane Wilkinson, her lawyer. She kept telling him she was going to make a will, but she never got around to it. He implied she used the will as an excuse to get to know him, but for the last year their relationship was more social than business.”
Sam added his two cents. “And Dane’s a short chubby gray-haired man in case you’re wondering, M.J.”
“I know.” I laughed. “You’re catching on quick, Sam. You’ve got the hang of this detective thing a lot more than I have. How about the bank? Did she have any money?”
“None to speak of.” Sam tossed me two bankbooks. “Two fifty in a checking account, and a little over three hundred in savings.”
“Not what you’d call money to kill for.” Jim said.
I stared into his naïve small town eyes. “How much is enough to kill for, Jim? I once arrested two teenage boys for beating and eighty-five year old woman so badly she was in a coma for three weeks. All because she wouldn’t give them her purse. It had fifty-five cents and two bus tokens in it.”
I covered my eyes with my hand to blot out the vision of that aged battered face. “You know, sometimes I hate this job. It’s like trying to swat a ghost with a torn flyswatter.”
“Go home, M.J.,” Sam advised. “You need some rest. We’ll let you know if we get anywhere.”
* * * * *
I could smell the pumpkin even as I parked the car. Throughout October, pumpkin is a staple in our diet until Aunt Hilda can get it all canned. She makes pies, breads, pumpkin ice cream and puddings, and even dry roasts the seeds. I love pumpkin, but sometimes during October, I get just a little sick of the smell of it. The house was lit up as if Aunt Hilda was having a party, but I knew it her ladies’ circle night. Sure enough though, as I stepped up onto the porch, I could hear women’s voices. Sighing, I pulled open the door.
As you go in our front door, you face the staircase. To the left is the dining room, and behind that, the kitchen. To the right is the parlor and behind that Pop’s bedroom. His bathroom and a small workroom share the space under the staircase. I entered the doorway to the right to the parlor.
There at the head of a large circle sat Mrs. Benson in Aunt Hilda’s favorite cross-stitched rocker. My mother had cross-stitched it when she was expecting me, and she and Aunt Hilda had spent many hours there rocking away, and reading me stories. Quite often I’d come home now to find Aunt Hilda with Misty on her lap, and both of them fast asleep with the large Grimm’s fairy tale book safely tucked between them. Somehow though, Mrs. Benson’s large figure didn’t seem to fit the dainty chair, or perhaps I’m only seeing her angry glare in a place I always associated with peace and calm.
Next to her sat Trudy and Corinne on our green velveteen sofa. The shampoo girl, Donna sat cross-legged on the floor next to them. On Mrs. Benson’s other side, Dora Collins and Emma Watkins sat on chairs borrowed from the dining room. An empty dining room chair was between Dora and Emma, where I suppose Aunt Hilda had been sitting. Beside each of our guests was a cup of steaming coffee or tea, and they each balanced a plate of pumpkin something on one knee. As I walked in, they all looked up from their busy tackling of Aunt Hilda’s homemade desserts. Spoons were suspended midair when Pop wheeled himself in from the kitchen carrying his own bowl of pumpkin ice cream, and Aunt Hilda came down the stairs carrying Misty in her Minnie Mouse pajamas. Pop and Aunt Hilda both spoke at once.
“I was just bringing Misty down to say goodnight to everyone.”
“You have guests, M.J. Can I get you some ice cream?”
“Hello, everybody,” I said, holding out my arms to take Misty. “No thanks, Pop. I’m not hungry right now.” I kissed Misty, and carried her into the parlor. Misty is a loving child. Too loving sometimes, I suppose. Maybe it was the sight of all the food, but she soon wanted down, and went around the room from one person to the next, giving each one in turn a hug and a peck on the cheek. It surprised me, but I think it surprised them even more. It sure changed their frame of mind. They hugged her back, and offered her bits of their desserts.
“Such a lovely child,” Mrs. Collins said.
Ooh, can I have her, M.J.? I could fix those curls like a real princess.”
“If you ever need a babysitter, Sheriff Barton,…”
“You know, I never noticed before, but she doesn’t look the least bit like you, Sheriff. I…”
Emma Watkins shushed her. “My Charlene doesn’t look like me either. I swear sometimes my Sam sat on a Xerox copier and pushed reduced size. She’s the spitting image of him.”
Everyone laughed. I got another chair from the dining room and pulled it up next to Pop, the only place there was room. “Can I get you a chair, Donna? There are still a couple left.”
“No thanks, Sheriff Barton. Your aunt already offered. Most of the time I sit on the floor at home, so I’m perfectly comfortable here.”
I sat. Misty finished her round and crawled up on my lap. “I presume you didn’t come here tonight to tell me how lovely Misty is, although I agree with you on that score completely.” She gave me a creamy kiss. “What can I do for you?”
Everyone looked to Mrs. Benson to speak first. Finally Trudy nudged her. “Huh? Oh, I was still thinking about Misty. We want you to let us open the shop back up.”
I looked around. Everyone nodded.
“Okay, you’ve got it,” I agreed. “You’re going to have fits about the mess we made in there though. I apologize for that. I wish it could have been helped.”
“Did you find anything, M.J.?” Trudy asked in her best little girl whisper. I looked over at Pop, only to find him staring at her shapely legs. Trudy did her best when there was a man in the room, even if he was in a wheelchair.
“As a matter of fact, we did,” I smirked.
Mrs. Benson stood, as if she had accomplished her mission, and was now in a hurry to leave before I changed my mind. “Well, whatever it was,” she barked, “I’m just glad you’re finally satisfied, and I can open my shop again. Let’s go, Ladies.”
“Not so fast, Mrs. Benson,” I said, lifting Misty down for a moment, taking off my jacket, and draping it across the back of my chair. Normally Aunt Hilda would have had a fit about that, but tonight she didn’t seem to even notice. I think she was too curious as to what I had found. “While I’ve got you all here together, I think I’d like to ask you all a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
At first I thought Mrs. Benson was going to refuse flat out, but when she saw that no one else was moving, she too sat back down. Trudy was the only one who hadn’t risen to go with her, but they all sat back down at my words. Trudy had merely hiked up her skirt a bit more. “Did you find the jewelry, M.J.?” she whispered. “Where was it?” When she giggled, I knew she was getting to me again, so I breathed deeply and counted to ten in my head. Maybe I should let them go home. Maybe it was a bad time. I was too tired to be polite to company.
“Never mind that right now, Trudy,” I said as kindly as I could. “First, I wanted to talk to Donna. Did Sam get you on the phone?”
She nodded. “I told him I put the bottle of cleaner on the shelf in the closet next to the Ajax where I always put it. If it’s not there, I don’t know where it could be, Sheriff Barton. I wouldn’t take it. Honest, I wouldn’t.
As she started to shake, Trudy hugged her shoulders. Evidently they’d already been talking before I got here because everyone seemed to know exactly what she was talking about.
I tried to allay their fears. “Don’t get upset, Donna. Nobody’s accusing anybody of anything, at least not right now. I just want everyone to think back, and try to remember any little detail that seemed out of the ordinary on Saturday, anything that seemed odd, no matter how trivial, no matter who or what it involved. I want you to speak up.” I stood up and began to circle the room with Misty on my hip, standing for a moment behind each chair. “Like, you got sick that day, didn’t you, Donna?”
She nodded and stuffed her last mouthful of pie and ice cream into her mouth, her previous ailment undoubtedly a distant memory.
“What time was that?”
“I don’t…I don’t know. It was about noon, I think. That’s right, because Trudy was just calling her Dad to see if he would bring us some sandwiches later.”
I moved to behind Dora Collins. “So you’d already cleaned the tanning bed when you got sick?”
Before she looked at me, she looked to Trudy as if getting permission to answer. Trudy shrugged. “What are you getting at,” Mrs. Benson demanded.
I ignored her and stared at Donna. “Were you wearing rubber gloves when you cleaned the bed?” I asked, moving over to stand behind Emma Watkins.
Dona’s already big eyes were huge behind her glasses. “Yes, ma’am. I had my gloves on pretty much all morning. I don’t always wear gloves when I clean the bed, but it was so crazy, I just didn’t bother to take them off.”
“Did anybody else get sick?”
“Not that I know of.”
“How about the gloves? Did you, by any chance, take them off or change them right after you cleaned the bed?”
“How’d you know that? When I had to take some soggy towels back to the washer, I got water down in them, so I got a dry pair.”
“Who told you to take the towels back?”
“Nobody. That’s my job.”
Finally I came to a stop beside Pop’s wheelchair. He set down his empty bowl, and held his arms out to Misty. She climbed down into his lap and laid her head on his shoulder. “Thanks, Pop.”
“Where would we find those gloves then, Donna?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, Sheriff. I change gloves sometimes several times a day. I can’t stand that squishy feeling I get when they get too wet. They should have been right there with the rest. Is it that important?”
I bent down to pat her shoulder. “Don’t worry about it too much, Donna, but I think maybe those gloves could have saved your life.”
It was easy to see everybody wanted to ask questions about that, but I held up my hands to stop them. “Did anybody else have something odd happen to them Saturday morning?
The looked puzzled, so I continued. “Try to picture yourself. You were working or getting your hair done just as usual. Mrs. Collins, you and Emma walked in. Did you have to wait much longer than usual since it was so busy? What was going on while you waited? As Kit walked through the door, where were you? What were you doing? She walked right past you back to the tanning room. Did anyone go back there after her? Or past her to the storeroom? Anything you remember?
“But she was back there an awfully long time, M.J.” Trudy said. “We probably all went past at one time or another. I mean to go to the bathroom, or to get a bottle of conditioner, or whatever. We keep most of our supplies in that back closet, and we were so busy Saturday, we were going through stuff like we were kids on Christmas morning.”
“I know that, Trudy, unfortunately. We’ll take that into account. Right now, I’m asking more about anything that might have seemed even slightly out of the ordinary. Like did anybody spill anything and have to go back to get a mop or something to clean it up, or did a customer forget her purse and have to go back for it, or anything like that.”
Trudy laughed. “If you think those things are out of the ordinary, M.J., you haven’t spent much time in a beauty parlor.” Then she shook her head. “But I get what you’re saying, something that could be a deliberate excuse. No, I can’t think of anything.” Slowly, everyone else shook their head to agree with her.
“What about you, Mrs. Collins? Did you hear or see anything while you were under the dryer?”
She opened her mouth to speak, then shook her head, and drank a large gulp of coffee. “I’m not as young as I used to be, you know, Sheriff. Saturday, just like always, I went to the bathroom, and then sat under the dryer. Corinne had already set it for me. It was only a little while after that awful young woman came past me , but sometimes I tend to fall asleep under the dryer. It’s so warm under there, I usually just drop right off.
I looked to Aunt Hilda for confirmation, and she nodded slightly.
“That’s true, M.J.,” Trudy giggled. “We usually have to shake her awake.”
“How about you, Emma? I had understood you had left before Kit even arrived?” She nodded. “Then why did you come here tonight? Do you have something to tell me? We can talk privately if you like.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know anything at all about this, M.J., I just want to know what’s going on.” Her words began to tumble out in a rush, as she pushed tears back from her cheek. “Sam won’t tell me a thing, but there are rumors floating all over town that you suspect Charlene, and that as soon as she gets back from her honeymoon, you’re going to have her arrested. I’m scared. Is that true? Are you going to arrest my baby? Why? Why would you?” Now the tears began to flow down her cheeks, and she streaked her make-up wiping them away. “You’re a mother, M.J.. Can’t you understand how I feel? Charlene is the only baby I have.”
“Did I hear my name mentioned?”
Everyone turned to see Charlene standing on the porch with her hand raised to knock on our screen door.”