Authors: Lesley A. Diehl
Tags: #General Fiction
His elbow slid down the bar, and his head followed until it lay in a pool of warm beer. He closed his eyes and appeared to be asleep. Kaitlin shook his shoulder. She had questions she wanted to ask him.
“He’s gone,” said Kenny. “You can pummel him all you want, but he won’t wake up until tomorrow morning.”
She stepped outside for a better signal on her cell phone. “The name’s Jim” had given her his number just before he left the house last night. She scrolled down to his name and hit “call.”
Investigator Wallace, Jim, answered the phone himself. She was surprised and said so.
“This isn’t headquarters. This is my personal cell.”
Now that was thoughtful of him.
She related to him what Barney Bartlett said. There was silence on the other end of the line for over a minute, and she thought she’d lost the connection.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” he said.
When he entered Kenny’s, all heads except for Barney’s turned toward the door. There was something about the man that just said “cop.” Mac had the same demeanor even after years of retirement. Kaitlin decided it had to be some kind of brain implant that made them look, walk and talk with that police deportment. Mac paused in his pool game and shook Jim’s hand. Caroline paused mid-shot to nod and then missed the cue ball completely.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” Mac said.
Jim took the bar stool next to Kaitlin’s. “This the guy?” He nodded toward Barney.
“Any way we can sober him up?”
“Kenny says no. That he’s out until tomorrow morning. Barbara, his wife, is usually the one who takes care of him and can get him awake and sober. If we could find her…”
“She won’t be doing that anymore. We found her. Dead. Up river from the bottling plant.”
* * *
Caroline returned to California the next morning, having extracted from Will a promise to donate bone marrow to her son if Will’s marrow analysis indicated he was the closest match. He seemed a changed man since the loss of his practice, his car and his house and his encounter with the hooligans who beat him up. No longer the arrogant city physician who looked down on country folk, he was a man in search of a new life.
“Henry Baldo is getting up there.” Will seemed eager enough to talk when he encountered Kaitlin on her way to the Cappuccino Café the morning after she learned about Barbara Bartlett’s death. The hospital had released him earlier, and he was walking down the village streets with the help of a cane. The smile on his face said he was enjoying the late spring weather which was rushing toward summer heat.
“Maybe this town could use a new doctor. I might just set up my practice here. Even though everyone knows about my past gambling problems, the town is small enough to know that I’ve joined Gamblers’ Anonymous. That’s the thing about small towns.”
“Yeah,” she said, “That’s the thing.”
Will proceeded down the street toward the river while Kaitlin took the left onto Main. She opened the door to the café and paused to take in the conversations filling the room. It was obvious the patrons there already heard about the murder, and they knew she was somehow involved in all of this. Not everyone stopped talking when she entered. A good sign, but old Mrs. Pearson was so involved in relating a version of the story asserting Kaitlin had killed Barbara to get Barney that she didn’t see Kaitlin enter.
Geez with the absurd stories.
Kaitlin stood near the coffee barista as she steamed the milk for her cappuccino, grabbed the cup when she finished and left the sound of gossiping voices behind her. Maybe she could get some work done on her column in the sanctuary of her small office at the newspaper.
Thank God Delbert was out for the morning. Brittany gave her usual cheery greeting and handed her the morning mail. “So how long have you been lusting after Barney Bartlett?”
“That’s not funny.”
“Sorry. Lots of letters here. That should keep you out of trouble for a while.”
Kaitlin gave her a look with narrowed eyes. Brittany grinned back at her.
Her phone rang. It was Lucille, her agent, and she was excited.
“How do you feel about pigs?”
“Oh, God, don’t tell me Jeremy talked to you about Desdemona?”
“Desdemona. Now there’s a great name for a pig. No. Jeremy? No, but I talked with Deirdre over the weekend, and she showed me some pictures she’d drawn of your pig. I like the idea of a pig so much, I’m having her make more sketches. What do you think?”
She thought she liked the idea of a potbellied pig better than a buzzard, but she had too much going on now to just switch gears so suddenly. But perhaps her writer’s block was really buzzard block. A new animal might just do it.
“And the buzzard?”
“Finish the buzzard. Have you seen Deirdre’s drawings of the birds? They’re great.”
She wondered how they’d look illustrating a blank page.
She said good-bye and got back to her mail. The third envelope she tore open contained a handwritten note which read:
I’ll meet you at seven tonight. Be outside the Dollar Store.
It was signed “Bethany.” Hmmm. The postmark on the envelope read Kingston. Not Philadelphia? Her parents said she was in Philadelphia at her grandparents’ house. Kaitlin thought she should call Bethany’s mother.
Before she could dial the number, Jim strode into the office. Her heart thumped harder. What was it about this guy? She hardly knew him.
“I thought you’d like to know. The autopsy on Mrs. Bartlett revealed cause of death to be blunt force trauma,” he said.
“English, talk English, not cop.” She was being pissy with him for no more reason other than she wished he could have said “good morning” before he launched into criminal matters.
“Right then. She was in the water for a day or so at least. Someone hit her over the head with a lug wrench. I thought the weapon used on the pig looked a lot like a possible murder weapon here, so I ran prints and checked the blood on it.
“Pig blood on it, but also Mrs. Bartlett’s. As well as prints from the guy who was tormenting that pig. Ran his prints through the system and up popped a match for our pig poker. Jake Willoughby. A local druggie, no violent crimes on his record until he took up aggravating animals and killing Barbara.” He stopped. “May I?” He gestured toward the chair.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Something wrong?”
A lot. The details of Barbara’s death upset her, and the note from Bethany was disturbing too. She handed it to him.
“The last time I saw her she was scared silly. She knows something about all of this, and I don’t want to frighten her away. I think she needs to be protected, don’t you?”
“I think you could use some protection, too.”
That was nice of him.
“So where do we go from here?” she asked.
“How about the café for a cup of coffee.”
“I was just in there, and the talk is that I killed Barbara Bartlett for her husband. Suddenly everyone favors me for anything bad that happens in this town. If I walk in there with you, it’ll just confirm their suspicions. I need to live in this town, you know.”
“Okay then, how about dinner, after you and I talk to Bethany tonight? We’ll go somewhere out of town.”
“No. I mean no to both of us talking to her. I think Bethany’s too scared to speak to the authorities.”
Jim nodded as if he understood and trusted Kaitlin to ask her the right questions.
Yes seemed like the only answer to that.
They settled on Mac shadowing her. He could blend in ways that a stranger like Jim wouldn’t.
“Catch you tonight after you meet with Bethany. You might want to encourage her to speak with us. I’d bet she knows something about Leda’s death, and assuming she does, her life might be in danger.”
“I think she knows that and is hiding out,” Kaitlin said. She worried that Bethany’s hiding place wasn’t as safe as she assumed it to be.
“The blood found in Hiram’s car? Not that you’d care, but it’s not his. It’s Barbara’s. Her prints were there too, along with Willoughby’s.”
Maybe Barney was right. Barbara left him for another man. And surely not Jake Willoughby. But Hiram? That was kind of like exchanging one drunk for another. Kaitlin couldn’t see Barbara as the type of woman who’d be interested in Hiram. Barney, drunk as he might be on alternate Thursdays and some off days, had a regular job. No one could quite pinpoint just what Hiram’s work was.
Jim remained in the chair as if he weren’t eager to leave. Should she interpret that as he wasn’t eager to leave
“How well do you know Mary Jane?”
Oh, oh. That sounded like an official police question. Apparently he only wanted to conduct more business.
“Mother’s or father’s side?”
“Uh. I’m not sure. You’d have to ask Mom. I never got it straight just how we’re related.”
“Her fingerprints were in Hiram’s car.”
“I know that. She took him out to dinner and tried to pry information out of him. Of course, her prints are in the car. What’s going on here?” She could feel a trickle of sweat running between her shoulder blades. Would she have to confess to Jim Mary Jane’s profession? And how would that sound to him?
“I ran her fingerprints through CODIS.”
“Now listen here. You’ve no right to snoop around like this.” She stopped and tried to calm herself. Of course he would investigate. It was his job. “And just what does that mean anyway.”
“I found them in the FBI databank.”
“It wasn’t her fault. The woman just died on her. She was old and…”
“What the hell are you talking about? What woman?”
“Never mind. I must have been confused.” She tilted her chair back, and the legs threatened to go out from under her. She righted it, sat forward, and ignored the twitch in her eyelid. “And?”
“She’s listed as Mary Jane Smith. Is that her last name?”
She shrugged. She’d never inquired after Mary Jane’s last name.
“When I tried to get more information on her, the message came up “Access Denied.” Why do you think that would be?”
“I don’t know. You’re the cop with the computer. What do you think?”
“Well, there are several possibilities, but that message often means the person is in the Witness Protection Program.”
No, no, no. Wrong. She
the witness protection program.
* * *
Mary Jane and Jeremy were not home when she got back. They’d left a note indicating they were having dinner with friends. What friends, she asked herself? Maybe federal agents checking up on them. She pictured all of them seated at a table laughing at her gullibility. She was more than gullible, she admitted. She was just plain dumb to believe Mary Jane’s angels story. And how horrible for the woman to get her son to go along with it. The state should take the boy away from her.
As she ranted and raved at her stupidity, Mary Jane’s duplicity and her own mother’s idiocy in believing these people were relatives—did she even check?—Kaitlin considered her meeting with Bethany and dinner date with Jim. Mostly her dinner date with Jim.
What to wear? Since the felons, or whatever they might be, had moved in with her, she’d lost weight and nothing fit her, nothing presentable at a decent restaurant. She glanced at her watch. Too late to call Brittany and ask to borrow something slinky and black.
She opened the door to Mary Jane’s closet and peeked in. The blaze of colors there slapped her in the face. She slammed the door. She reopened it, shut her eyes for a moment, then opened them halfway, and grabbed for something red, and something else black.
* * *
She strolled back and forth in front of the Dollar Store, self-conscious in Mary Jane’s red silk blouse and black miniskirt. She blinked one eye furiously against the mascara she applied. She’d lost her touch with make-up, almost putting out an eye as she swept the black goop across her eyelashes. Out of the corner of the other, drier eye she spied Mac hunkered down in the front seat of his car.
She tensed as she spied an ancient Camaro circle the block, then park down the street away from the lights of the store and beyond the streetlight on the corner. A boy in a baseball cap, dirty jeans, and a Boston Red Sox windbreaker got out and walked toward her. She stopped her pacing and relaxed a bit. Obviously, a tourist from out of state. No one from in state would be wearing anything other than a jacket with a Yankees logo on it.
“Kaitlin,” the young man said. She looked down into Bethany’s eyes.
“You cut your hair.”
“Just tucked in the cap, that’s all.”
“Are you okay?” Kaitlin asked.
“Can we walk a little and get out of this light? I’d feel better if people couldn’t see me.”
They turned the corner beyond the store and headed toward the neighborhoods of Aldensville where there was less light. Kaitlin heard Mac open and close his car door and knew he was somewhere behind them on foot.
“Here.” Bethany pulled a package out of the front of the windbreaker and handed it to Kaitlin.
“What’s this?” She stopped to take the package.
“It has to do with a promise I made to Ms. Hatfield before she died. She asked me to give this to her friend, Leda, but Leda died before I could get it to her. I don’t know what it’s all about, but I liked Ms. Hatfield, and she was insistent that I get this out of her room. I figured you should have it since Leda’s dead.”
Kaitlin opened the bag. Inside was a music box.
“It doesn’t play anymore. It won’t wind up. I tried it.”
She was right. When Kaitlin tried to turn the key, it wouldn’t move, as if something inside prevented it from turning.
“Kind of dumb, huh? A broken music box, but I thought it might mean something to Leda. Ms. Hatfield gave it to me the day before she died.”
“Tell me what happened that day. Even if it seems silly to you, tell me everything that happened that day.”
Bethany seemed impatient to be on her way once she had delivered the package. She pulled Kaitlin further down the shadowed sidewalk, twisting her head in every direction as if she were expecting someone to jump at her from the shadows. Finally she stopped walking and turned to Kaitlin with a sigh.