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I can’t believe I’d gotten so sappy last night. I was a cop. I’d spent my whole life determined to be a cop. But I’d fallen apart like a teenager at her first fight with her new boyfriend just because Aunt Hilda had made a threat to Kit Shannon. My hysterics weren’t going to help her, or help me to find the real killer. I didn’t believe for one instant that she had really done it. If there ever was a woman on this earth who practiced what she preached, it was my Aunt Hilda. She had enough love in her for about six women. Her gruff exterior fooled strangers, but never anyone who had been around her for much more than a half hour. If she wouldn’t tell me why she had threatened Kit, I’d just have to find out for myself.
I hadn’t been home since last night, so I’m sure I looked like a drowned pup. I ordered us some bacon and eggs from Connie’s Diner, and went down to the ladies room to wash my face and comb my hair. I didn’t bother with any cosmetics, but when I went back to our single holding cell to bring her breakfast, Aunt Hilda had already put on her lipstick, and she looked exactly the same as she had every morning since I could remember. I have no idea how she’d managed it, but there wasn’t even a wrinkle in her silk dress.
“Aunt Hilda, it’s just you and me here now. Won’t you please tell me why you threatened Kit? Off the record. I won’t tell anyone. I just need to know.”
“No, you don’t, Melody. I didn’t kill her, so it doesn’t have anything to do with the murder. It’ll just make you mad, and a body can’t think straight when she’s mad. You need to think straight about this, so you don’t need to know.” She stabbed her fork into the yellow bubble of her egg and dipped her toast into it.”
“But she made you mad too, Aunt Hilda,” I reminded her.
“That’s a fact. She did. I don’t think I’ve ever been that angry before in my entire life. God forgive me.”
“Did she make you so mad you were unable to think straight?”
She snapped her bacon in half. “For a minute,” she admitted. “I really know now what the Bible means when it equates hatred to murder. If she’d been murdered Saturday before last, you’d have to lock me away and throw away the key. There’s no question it would have been me. For just one minute, I’d have gladly thrown everything away just to get my hands around her evil neck. But that minute passed, and I went home and got down on my knees and asked The Good Lord to forgive me for it. But He’s still got a lot of work to do to make me change my attitude toward that wicked woman, even if she is dead, and now faces a far more terrible wrath than mine.”
“Sheriff! Come quick!” Donaldson rushed in wearing a bright blue jogging suit. He jogged every morning. I’d seen him out running many times when I was making rounds, but not usually this late. But he wasn’t due in to work until noon, so it didn’t really bother me much that he was a little late getting his exercise.
I grabbed up the empty dishes, and came out of the cell. “What’s going on?” I asked. I started down the hall to the sink.
“It’s Mrs. Collins.”
I turned back so fast I dropped the cup, spilling the dregs onto the scuffed linoleum. “Go on,” I grabbed tissues off my desk and wiped at the floor.
“They’ve rushed her to County Hospital, but they say there’s not much chance she’s going to make it.” He was panting so hard, I wondered if he had run all the way from Mrs. Collins’ house to tell me the news.
“Where was she? What happened?”
“We’re not sure. She’s unconscious, but Doc says her symptoms indicate some sort of poison, or perhaps a derivative of digitalis. He thinks she’s been lying there on her floor for most of the night.”
“Melody, what’s going on out there?” Aunt Hilda called from the cell. Trust her to stand in an unlocked cell, and call out, not come out.
I went back and locked it. “I’m going to have to go out for a while, Aunt Hilda,” I apologized “I’ll be back as soon as I can. It’s police business. Sam will be here as soon as I can get him.”
She waved me on. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not going anywhere.”
I knew she was curious, but that was Aunt Hilda. She wouldn’t ask more than once. I grabbed my jacket, and called to Donaldson over my shoulder, “I’m going to call the hospital before we leave.”
“Yes, yes I see…Yes, I’m sure you did…No, no thank you. I’ll do that. Bye.” I hung up the phone and ran my fingers through my hair. “She was DOA.”
He sank into his chair, and bowed his head. The run must have been too much for him. When he was breathing more normally, I tapped his arm. “Come on, let’s get to the house. I’ll call Sam. I’m afraid it’s going to be another long day.” I didn’t mean to be insensitive, but I was anxious to get on with the investigation.
We actually have three police cars in Roseville, although of course they’re all pretty ancient. Mine is about the newest. It’s an ’85 Crown Victoria that eats gas like chocolate candy. Donaldson’s car is smaller and a lot cheaper to drive, but I guess it’s still at his house. I probably would have let him drive anyway, but he still looked pretty shook up. He got into the passenger side without a word, and leaned back with his eyes closed. I wasn’t up to talking much yet either. As I backed into the street, I kept seeing poor Mrs. Collins sitting there in our parlor last night so quietly watching everyone. Had she seen something there that I hadn’t? Maybe. I drove down Main Street and took a right onto Canary Lane.
I was feeling more and more guilty as I drove along. I should have told Aunt Hilda the news before I left. Some blasted reporter was bound to bust in and blab before I got back. Why didn’t I tell her? Darned if I knew. Guess I’d screwed up again. I told myself I needed to know more first. She could have had a heart attack. After all, she was an old woman. I didn’t believe it. Not for a minute. But it helped to tell myself that. She could have even killed herself from remorse over murdering Kit Shannon. Now I really was entering the realm of fantasy. Dora Collins was a nice old bird, a bit fastidious, and sometimes a little gruff, but a murderer? Never. But then, wouldn’t I have said exactly the same thing about everyone connected to this blasted case so far?
“Tell me more about what happened, Jim. Who found her? Why’d they call you instead of the station?”
He reddened. “I the one who found her, Sheriff. No one called me.”
“You know I live in those apartments across the way, back behind the elementary school. Every morning I jog right past Dora’s house about seven o’clock just as she opens her curtains. She waves at me as she comes out on the porch to shake out her rugs. By eight, she has her first load of laundry out on the line, and by the time I make my second loop, she’s back on the porch with a glass of tomato juice for me. We have a nice chat before the rest of the world wakes up.”
Pretending not to notice as he wiped his face on his sleeve, I contemplated this new twist in our soap opera. This is a small town. People know each other. Jim had lost his parents a few years back, and he probably needed a grandmotherly friend to fill a void. But right now I couldn’t help but wish it had been anyone else in the world.
“But what about this morning?”
“I noticed, of course,” he whispered, “when her curtains were still closed when I passed by the first time, but I figured she was just a little late getting started. I’d never known her to oversleep, but there’s always a first time for everything. On my second time by though, I got a little worried. I went around back and peeked in the kitchen window. She was sprawled there…” He punched the dashboard. “Why would anyone kill her, Sheriff? She was a sweet old lady. Reminded me so much of my own grandma, bless her soul.”
Neither of us spoke again until we pulled up at the house. The news hounds were gathered out front. The pack had grown steadily since Kit’s murder, bringing them running from Atlanta and points north. There was even an AP man here from New York who’d dubbed it the “Murder in a Coffin of Light.” I swear, the things they come up with to grab a headline. A dozen mikes hit my face as I opened the car door.
“Is it true you’ve arrested your own aunt, Sheriff?”
“Do you think she did this one too?”
“Why’d she do it?”
“No comment. No comment,” I yelled over the din. “Please back away, and let us do our work.” Jim slid across the seat, and came out of the car behind me. He put his arm around my shoulder, and together we made our way to the porch. I whispered my thanks as he pulled out a key on a labeled fob. “I took this from her key rack and locked the door on my way out.”
He opened the door, and we slammed it shut behind us to keep out the crowd. I looked around me in wonderment. My Aunt Hilda is a good housekeeper, but even before the advent of Misty, our house was never this immaculate first thing in the morning. It’s funny. You think in a small town, you really know everybody, and in some ways, you do, but in others, you don’t know them at all. I’d never been in Mrs. Collins’ house before today. She’d been in our house many times, and I’m sure Aunt Hilda had been here, but I hadn’t. It was beautiful. Kind of like stepping into a movie set of a pre-Civil War manor. The freshly waxed wooden floors didn’t have one black mark on them even after men must have trooped through here taking her out this morning. Or perhaps they didn’t dare troop. Perhaps the very essence of cleanliness that confronted them was like their grandmother’s voice whispering to them to wipe their feet. The stair bannister as well as the old fashioned mahogany tables with their starched white tatted doilies gleamed like a furniture commercial. Nowhere was there a single scrap of paper out of place, or even one dish until we got into the kitchen, where a lone cup sat on the counter with a spoon and a tablespoon of cocoa in the bottom of it. A gleaming copper kettle sat on the stove. I felt it. It was full, but it was ice cold.
“She didn’t get to make her cocoa last night, Sheriff.”
I stirred the dry powder. “So I see. Do you suppose she drank cocoa every night, Jim?”
“Sure as she drank a glass of tomato juice every morning.”
Suddenly it hit me. “She’d drunk a full cup of coffee at my house. I’d watched her drain the cup just as she left. “Jim,” I blurted, “you’ve got to go over to my house now, as soon as possible. Take some plastic bags with you, and put all the cups and saucers and dishes we used last night into them. If they’re still on the tables in the parlor, label them as best you can as to where you found them. Fortunately, Pop’s not quite an early riser as you, and with the trouble it is to get Misty dressed and settled, I doubt he’s had time to wash them yet. Ask Pop who served whom, and be sure to ask him if there was any slip-up over who got what.”
He stared. “You think she was poisoned there? Right under your nose?”
“Yep. She was fine when she left us, and I doubt if she stopped anywhere along the way, so if she was poisoned, there’s a good chance it had to be slipped to her there.” Turning, I opened the cabinets and admired the orderliness.
He whistled. “Sure different from Kit Shannon’s place, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t know. I never went there. You and Sam took care of that.”
He grinned. “Be glad. We had to wade through the crud to do it. She had clothes strewn around the rooms like confetti. And her sink was piled so high with dirty dishes, she couldn’t have washed a dish in at least a couple of weeks.”
My nail tried to find its way back into my mouth, and I balled my fist to keep it out. “She was a total slob. Trudy told me.” I chewed my knuckle. “Tell me, Jim. You knew Mrs. Collins pretty well. How would she feel about looking at a pile of clothes lying on the floor in front of her week after week?”
“That’s easy. She would hate it. It would make her crazy.” He seemed to realize what he’d implied, and quickly added. “But not enough to kill the woman, Sheriff.”
I laughed. “I wasn’t implying she did, Jim. I was just wondering if she would reach under the curtain, and take the clothes to fold them up?”
He bit his lip, and nodded. “I bet she’d fight the urge for weeks, but sooner or later, yeah, that’s exactly what she’d do.”
I bit my own lip. This case had better be over soon, or we were all going to end up with mutilated bodies from the worry of it. “So let’s see. Suppose she pretended sleep, and when it was clear, she slid the clothes out, folded them, and put them back under. But suppose she picked the wrong day to do it. Suppose our murderer was expecting her to be asleep like she always was.”
Jim nodded. It was pure speculation, of course, but it made as much sense to us as anything else in this screwy case. “I think maybe she saw something, or at least our murderer thinks she might have seen something, and it cost her life. I just wish she’d told me.”
“She couldn’t, Sheriff. If she touched those clothes, and I’m pretty sure you’re right, she did, then she’d feel almost as guilty as if she’d murdered Kit herself. My grandma was old-fashioned like that. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but I know she had that much respect for a person’s things.”
“I agree.” I patted his shoulder. I’d never realized before how heavy I am on patting shoulders. “Come on. You’d better get over to my house quick. You can take the back way out to avoid the hounds. Run up and get your car. I’ll see if I can stall them long enough that they don’t see you leave.”