Authors: Lesley A. Diehl
Tags: #General Fiction
“Sorry. I thought you were finished.” He flipped back, and the cat took up her purring once more.
“How do you think she’s doing?” asked Mary Jane. She nodded her head toward Kaitlin’s bedroom upstairs.
“Oh, good,” said Jeremy. “She writes stories about animals, so I know she likes them.”
“That’s not really what I’m asking, Sweetie,” said Mary Jane. “I mean what do you think she’ll tell everyone about us?”
“Did she say anything to her mother?”
“No,” said Mary Jane. She marked her place in the book and set it on the table next to her. “I think she’ll forget about us if she gets busy, good busy. Right now she’s too stressed. We should take her out for some entertainment soon.” She arose from the chair. “Let’s go see what that billiard’s parlor is like tonight.”
Jeremy wrinkled up his nose. “Nah, I’ll stay here. Ask Kaitlin to go with you.”
“I think she’s busy now. Or will be soon. C’mon. I’ll give you another pool lesson.”
Hester jumped off Jeremy’s lap and headed for her dish in the kitchen.
“You don’t want me tagging along. It’ll cramp your style. Pool halls are filled with guys. You might meet someone there.”
Her son was such a smart fella, she thought, as she ran up the stairs and grabbed her pool cue from the bedroom closet. “Kaitlin,” she called down the hallway, “I’m off for an hour or so to Kenny’s.”
Kaitlin’s door opened, and she entered the hallway with a sheet of paper in her hand. “You taking Jeremy or do you want me to babysit?”
Mary Jane noticed the paper and thought,
she’s reading the letters. Good.
“I don’t need babysitting,” Jeremy called up from the living room. “I’m almost ten, you know.”
The two women rolled their eyes at one another.
“Would you mind?” whispered Mary Jane. “Make sure he’s in bed by ten at least.”
“Sure. Have fun. Watch out for some of the guys that hang out at Kenny’s.”
* * *
When Mary Jane entered Kenny’s all eyes turned toward her. Few women came into the establishment, and certainly none looked anything like her. Tonight she wore her favorite red sweater, pulled low over her breasts. She paired it with black tights tucked into her ankle boots. After several seconds of appreciative scrutiny, those at the bar turned their attention back to the reason they were there—beer and television uninterrupted by kids or wives.
One patron sat alone, his grey eyes snapping steely silver sparks of interest as they took in Mary Jane. Of course, she could tell he noticed her beauty and her flamboyant manner of dress, but she was pleased to see most of his attention was drawn to what she held in her hand—a pool cue. Fate pulled him toward her.
“Looking for a game?” he asked.
Her eyes traveled from the burr cut of his salt and pepper hair to his long-sleeved plaid shirt and worn jeans on down to the alligator cowboy boots on his feet. She particularly liked his face, craggy, but with a full soft mouth, one that could do with a lot of kissing, she suspected.
“You any good?” she asked.
And she knew he wasn’t lying.
The boys at the bar watched her break. Mary Jane smiled to herself. The man had a game on his hands.
“When you’re not losing at pool,” she said after beating him four games in a row, “what do you do? And I assume you’ve got a name?”
They sat at one of Kenny’s tables, a pitcher of unfinished beer between them. Mary Jane could drink most men under the table, but she figured that was something this guy didn’t need to know about her yet. She sipped from her glass as daintily as if it were French champagne.
“Mac’s the name,” he said, “and I used to be a detective with the NYPD. Now I do a little private work.”
. Much as she appreciated his looks and his pool skills, she hoped he wouldn’t get too nosey about her life’s story.
* * *
Kaitlin looked down at the letter she’d retrieved out of Leda’s advice column box. Her mouth fell open in surprise as she read it:
I’ve got five kids and a husband who drinks too much every now and then. That’s enough of a problem, but our next-door neighbor’s pot-bellied pig just loves our kids and wanders over to play. That’s somewhat of a problem, but I can handle it. The pig likes to sleep on our front porch, and we don’t have a light on the porch. Now that’s a problem my husband was supposed to fix but never has.
When he gets drunk (the husband, not the pig) and comes home late at night, he stumbles over the pig. Last time he broke his nose (my husband’s nose, not the pig’s), and he’s threatened to make breakfast sausage out of that pig if it happens again. That’s the problem. The neighbor will be mad, and the kids will cry. I’d hate to have my neighbor yelling at me and the kids crying all over the place. What can I do?
It was, as the newspaper requested, unsigned. Yet Kaitlin had only been in town for a little over a month, and she could identify the writer. Anyone in the community could. Although the situation might be considered amusing, Mrs. Baxter, the writer, was clearly upset by it. Kaitlin knew better than to dismiss the woman’s distress.
I think I’d better handle this one privately, by phone.
But before she called the unfortunate woman, she needed to confer with Jeremy, her resident animal expert. He might know what to do. She set it to one side.
Leda had marked the letters she included in her column with a notation on the envelope. The others Kaitlin sorted by postal date to make certain she dealt with the oldest ones first. All the letters assured the reader they were in need of an expert advice columnist, and Leda was the one. But am I, Kaitlin wondered.
Another letter asked whether marijuana kept in the freezer for over six months with freezer burn on the package was safe to smoke. That letter was signed by Merve, the old hippie who owned a farm just outside town. Leda had left it unanswered, and Kaitlin understood why. Merve was breaking the law, but she felt his concern merited some kind of reply. Probably another private phone call would do it although she hadn’t any idea what she would say to him. Perhaps,
get rid of the stuff, Merve
, would suffice.
One of the letters held a postal date of over a month ago, yet Leda’s notation of having answered it was missing on the envelope. Kaitlin thought she knew why. It wasn’t someone seeking advice of the usual sort. One line only, it read, “Why are things being stolen at ARC?”
Kaitlin didn’t recall anything in the news about a criminal investigation into thefts at the Aldensville Retirement Center. If items were missing, why didn’t someone report it to the police? No signature appeared at the bottom of the paper. The envelope bore a Kingston postmark.
She read on, intrigued by the situations presented in the letters. They weren’t too different from those she’d encountered when she was a counselor at the community college. Hey, maybe this
the job for her. It combined writing with her counseling credentials. If it jump-started her work on the book, and she could keep it from her agent, she’d be better off than she was at the beginning of the summer. And the hell with Zack and his old, rich wife.
She finally selected two of the earlier postmarked letters for reply in this week’s column. One asked how to deal with an abusive spouse, the other a bossy sister-in-law. Standard advice column inquiries, standard responses. Recently postmarked letters included more of the same—a teenager being harassed at school, a dispute over a boundary line, a barking dog, loaning money to a friend…
And, another letter about ARC thefts. This one was written as a directive: “You should find out who’s taking things from our seniors at ARC.” Kaitlin looked up from her reading. With Leda gone, did this mean me, she wondered?
Self-doubt about her replies chased her around the bedroom all night. She got up at three in the morning and reread her advice. It sucked.
“I can’t do this job.” That was what Kaitlin intended saying the minute she entered the newspaper office the next morning, but when she opened her mouth to make the announcement, Brittany drew her to one side and excitedly told her the latest about Leda.
“A lawyer, I think it was her nephew’s, was in here yesterday afternoon and went through her things. Boy, I’ll bet the nephew will be in for a real surprise once the will is read.”
She’d suckered Kaitlin in. “How so?”
“The lawyer told me nephew Will assumes he’s getting her entire estate, and I didn’t tell him differently. But Leda told me she was making out a new will and leaving everything to someone else. She was very secretive about who it was. She said she and Will had a fight, and she wasn’t going to let him get one red cent of her money. What money, I ask you? Leda didn’t have very much that I know of. But nephew Will won’t get it even if it’s only five cents.”
“That makes me feel a lot better. At least we know now that she couldn’t have been killed for her money,” Kaitlin said. “Now about this job…”
“Killed? You know better than to be swayed by Delbert’s attempts to increase readership. She fell down the stairs and bumped her head on the way down. You think she was killed? I thought she had a bad heart and that caused her to fall. We’ll know once Doc Baldo gets the autopsy results to us. He was there at the time, you know.”
“Was he? You mean when she died? I saw him at the house when the ambulance arrived, but…”
“He’s the coroner for this county. Ask him. Here he comes now, probably with those results.”
Baldo swung open the glass door to the office.
“Here they are. Keeping the public informed and the newspaper honest.” He handed a sheaf of papers to Brittany. “I’ll be at ARC all day if your reporter needs clarification. Myocardial infarction, or, in lay terms, heart attack, just as I suspected. Plummeted down those stairs and hit her head on the way down.”
“Were you there when it happened?” Kaitlin asked.
For the first time since he’d entered the office, Baldo looked at her, a frown digging furrows into his brow and between his eyes.
“Kaitlin Singer,” she said, holding out her hand. “My friends and I kind of rescued you from those geese, so I knew you’d been at the house.” She felt she should admit she was the woman on the bicycle, but something held her back.
Baldo ignored her hand. “Your friend said she heard the sirens, but how did she know where to find me?” he asked.
Kaitlin hesitated and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s a small town.”
“Was she out riding a bicycle earlier?”
“No. She and her son had just arrived a few minutes before.”
“Maybe I should speak to her anyway.”
“I don’t think she could tell you a thing.” Why was he so interested in identifying the woman on the bicycle?
Baldo gave her a final piercing look, then shrugged his shoulders. “Well, no matter. As for the night of Leda’s death, I was on the porch about to enter the house when I heard someone cry out and a racket inside. I rushed in to find her at the foot of the stairs. That’s all there was to it.” He paused for a moment, then leaned forward, his face inches from Kaitlin’s. “You can tell your friend that.”
“Was she dead when you got to her? Did she say anything?” asked Brittany.
A mix of emotions played upon Dr. Baldo’s face—anger, sorrow, fear—before he arranged his features into his usual cold, withdrawn look.
“Nothing at all, nothing important. Just gibberish.”
“Tell us.” Brittany’s round, blue eyes grew even rounder with anticipation.
“She said ‘that’s talk’ or ‘hats walk.’ Or something like that. Restricted blood flow to the brain. She knew she was dying and dying people sometimes say things that may be important to them, but mean nothing to others.” He ran his hand over his face. “I must go now.” He abruptly turned around, pulled open the door, and proceeded out. For a moment, the wind caught his suit jacket, causing it to billow about him like a black cape.
“He’s all broken up about her death. I think they were more than dating. I think they were sweethearts. She’ll sure be missed at ARC, you know,” said Brittany.
“No, I don’t. Why?”
“Oh, she worked as a long-term care ombudsman there. You know, a volunteer who goes in to advocate for the residents. Say, you could take that on in addition to the column.”
“No, I couldn’t. Not unless I want to become an early resident of the place. Look, here’s the thing…” The phone rang before Kaitlin could finish her farewell speech. Brittany held up her finger and answered it.
While she was busy, Kaitlin took out her cell and decided to call Lucille, her agent. Brittany motioned her to an open door and nodded toward the office within. “It was Leda’s,” she said. She held her hand over the receiver. “Go ahead and use it for your call.”
Kaitlin slid into the chair behind the desk and turned her back on the doorway. No putting off Lucille any longer. She knew she would dread this conversation, but she owed Lucille some explanation. Maybe she wouldn’t be in her office and Kaitlin could offer up her puny excuses to the answering machine gods. The call connected, and Lucille picked up on the first ring. Lucille was not happy with her. As they began their conversation, an angry voice coming from outside the door caught Kaitlin’s attention. Maybe Brittany needed help. Much as she hated to interrupt the roll of great excuses she was on, she told Lucille she would call her back. Kaitlin could hear her sputtering on the line as she disconnected.
“I demand to see the editor and right now!” Kaitlin didn’t recognize the voice. She stuck her head out the office door.
“He’s not in right now, but I’ll be happy to…” Before Brittany could complete her sentence, a tall man dressed in a grey suit spun on his heels and slammed out of the office.
“You okay?” asked Kaitlin.
“Fine. What a temper. That was Will Jameson, Leda’s nephew. You heard?”
“Not all of it.”
“He insisted on seeing Delbert,” Brittany said. “He just read the story on Leda’s death and wanted to know what the paper was implying about the circumstances surrounding it. He’s on his way now to talk with Dr. Baldo. He claims there was absolutely nothing wrong with his aunt’s heart. He doesn’t yet know about the autopsy results.”