Authors: Lesley A. Diehl
Tags: #General Fiction
“Well, Baldo will set him straight.”
“It’s kind of funny, though.” Brittany screwed her face up as if contemplating an unusual color of lipstick.
“Will Jameson is Dr. William Jameson. He’s a medical doctor. Don’t you think he would have known if his aunt’s heart was bad?”
Now, wasn’t that ironic? Delbert’s attempt to make the paper more readable by characterizing Leda’s death as suspicious may have been right on the mark. And that wasn’t all that was suspicious. Kaitlin recalled the look of fear that crossed Dr. Baldo’s face when she and Brittany questioned him about Leda’s death. And what about the other person in Leda’s house the night she died?
Dr. Baldo, the suitor, or Dr. Jameson, the nephew—who would know more about Leda Pippel’s heart?
* * *
Not only did the conversation with Dr. Baldo put the thought of resigning her new position out of her mind, but she allowed Brittany to convince her to use Leda’s old office as her own.
No backbone, just none at all. Another characteristic she hated about herself.
Then, when she arrived at her house, she took her self-loathing out on Mary Jane.
She plunked down on the couch and watched Mary Jane hem one of her skirts.
If she made it any shorter, it could be called a belt.
“You said you lost your job. Now, just how did that happen again?” she asked. Her tone was decidedly testy.
Mary Jane couldn’t help but pick up on her irritation, but she laid one of her brilliant smiles on Kaitlin. “Jeremy and I were companions to an elderly woman who finally died.”
“Finally?” asked Kaitlin. “Was she ill for a long time?”
“It wasn’t our fault. It was…” Mary Jane paused as if looking for the right word. “Sometimes things just happen, and we can’t intervene without altering more than we intended.” Kaitlin leaned forward, hooked on Mary Jane’s story, hoping for more details. Instead Mary Jane changed the subject.
“The agency will be reassigning us, and that may take some time. We’re a pair, you know, and it’s not easy to find the right situation for us.” She knotted the thread and bit off the end of it.
Kaitlin could see how difficult it must be for a single mother to do the work Mary Jane did. Certainly Jeremy might be considered a liability especially now that she knew about his “collections,” the result of his proclivity for adopting every stray cat, dog, turtle, and goldfish passing the front door. No wonder he needed the larger bedroom.
Wait a minute.
She couldn’t be buying their guardian angel story, could she?
“And what about Jeremy’s schooling?” asked Kaitlin. She certainly didn’t mean to imply Mary Jane was neglecting her son’s well-being. However, so far she’d seen no evidence of school books, but then it was summer, although most of the schools didn’t let out until late June.
“Schooling? I don’t think he needs a lot more. He’s pretty smart as he is, don’t you think?” Mary Jane held up the skirt, examined its length, and smiled.
“There are laws about education,” Kaitlin said in a firm voice.
“Oh, right. Sometimes I forget. What do you think about the school system here?”
“It’s small, but excellent,” she said. “Jeremy would find it to his liking, I think.” She stopped.
Jeremy wouldn’t be here in the fall to attend. Would he?
“You look so down today. I thought you’d be on the top of the world with your new position and all. Things not going well?” Mary Jane asked.
It was impossible, thought Kaitlin, to get anywhere with Mary Jane. She’d talk to the woman, and Mary Jane seemed to love talking, but she never found out what she really wanted to know. Kaitlin slid further down into the couch. What the hell. She gave up. She didn’t feel much like continuing her role as grand inquisitor. Instead she wanted a sympathetic ear.
“I have some doubts about how suited I am for the job.” She then proceeded to unload her concerns onto Mary Jane and also to tell her about the ARC letters and Leda’s nephew Will.
“I know just what you need.”
“Yes. Grab your purse and let’s go. Oh, unless you’d rather not use your car.”
Kaitlin shook her head no.
“Mall crawling. It always works for me,” said Mary Jane. She yelled upstairs to see if Jeremy wanted to go along.
He yelled back down, “Yeah! The mall,” and they piled into Kaitlin’s car for the half hour drive to Kingston.
In the car Mary Jane nattered on about how she was finding Aldensville and her hook-up at Kenny’s with someone called Mac. Kaitlin drove with half an ear on what Mary Jane was saying. She let her mind wander over what her life had become since returning to her home town and taking in Mary Jane and Jeremy. Their presence left her breathless. Asking questions produced answers that only made her feel more winded. She should just quit trying to pry information out of Mary Jane.
All her creative juices seemed to have come to a standstill. From the day this odd pair landed in her lap, nothing had been the same in her life. She wanted them gone because they exhausted her, yet she found their presence somehow comforting in a way she didn’t understand. She had watched as Jeremy filled the house with off-the-street rescues, worried the neighbors would complain she was running a shelter, yet she couldn’t bring herself to suggest he get rid of one of his charges. Well, except for the salamander and the snake she found sleeping on her pillow.
Mary Jane nudged Kaitlin’s arm as they pulled into the mall. “You sure are off somewhere. Look, you’re just having a little dip in your confidence level, that’s all. I don’t see how you can be creative if your life is dull. You need to spice it up. Buy a new wardrobe or try red streaks in your hair.”
Mary Jane gave Jeremy five dollars to go to the game arcade and then steered Kaitlin into Victoria’s Secret and pushed her toward the sexy negligees.
“Why buy this stuff?” Kaitlin asked. She held up a red lacy bra she’d just dug out of a bargain bin. “No one except for you and Jeremy and the zoo see me in bed anyway.” She tossed it back onto the sales table.
Mary Jane tipped her head to one side and peered into Kaitlin’s teary eyes. “Off we go then.” She grabbed Kaitlin’s arm and steered her out of the store and into a coffee shop where Kaitlin spent the rest of the afternoon spilling out her depression and anger at Zack over several double shot espressos.
“He was my illustrator. I thought we were close, but he met Mrs. Gumball…”
“She’s my mother’s age and she’s heiress to the world’s largest manufacturer of gumballs, you know, those round chewing gum things that you get out of machines. She promised to connect him with a publisher who could get him big jobs. And she’s delivered, too.”
“How humiliating,” said Mary Jane.
“I was devastated. Now I’m just mad.”
“Of course you are. I meant how humiliating for him. That’s enough to rob a man of his, you know, his manliness, don’t you think?” asked Mary Jane.
Kaitlin hadn’t given that much thought, but now, when she rolled the issue over in her mind, she wondered how well Zack was doing. Not that she cared, of course.
Mary Jane stood and looked around the mall. “Okay. Is there a liquor store around here? We could use a bottle of champagne.”
* * *
“We’re toasting exactly what?” asked Kaitlin. She sat at the kitchen counter holding the champagne flute in her raised hand.
“Anything you want,” said Mary Jane.
What did she want?
Mary Jane’s eyes scrutinized her with such intensity she felt as if they were penetrating her skull. Maybe Mary Jane was like an MRI device, probing Kaitlin’s thoughts, and there was no need to answer out loud.
“Well?” Mary Jane asked.
“I guess I’d like to learn how to play pool,” Kaitlin said. Her words took her by surprise. And they shocked Mary Jane, proof the woman was neither the mistress of the modern brain scan nor an old-fashioned mind reader.
The last time Kaitlin had been in Kenny’s she was four years old, and her uncle, the bartender there at the time, mistakenly replaced her Shirley Temple with a Scarlet O’Hara. Her mother found her sleeping off the effects of the Southern Comfort under the pool table. Once awakened, Kaitlin asked for another drink, insisting it be “one of the good ones.” She remembered singing all the way home in the car. She also seemed to recall her head hurting the next morning.
Kaitlin related the story to Mary Jane as they settled onto one of the bar stools.
“You must hate this place then,” Mary Jane said.
“Naw. Actually I kind of like bars. Mom often left me with my aunt who, along with Uncle Harold, tended bar in gin mills all over this county. You could say I was raised around beer and booze.” She lifted her feet from the stool’s rung, and threw her arms into the air. “See? Perfect balance.”
Mary Jane laughed, and Kaitlin joined in. Kaitlin wondered if it was the effects of the champagne. Or maybe she was feeling frisky tonight for some reason.
The bar door opened letting in light from the late afternoon sun. A tall man entered and walked toward them. Suddenly Mary Jane got very still.
“Who’s the hunk?” asked Kaitlin.
“Mac,” Mary Jane said. Her voice had taken on a breathless quality, and it sounded several octaves lower than when she normally spoke.
Kaitlin watched her straighten her shoulders and pull her slinky red top lower on her chest.
“Hiya, Babe,” he said, then stuck out his hand to Kaitlin. “John MacDonald here.”
She let her small hand be enveloped by Mac’s large catcher’s mitt-sized paw. His touch was firm, yet gentle.
“You play?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the pool table.
Mary Jane hopped off her stool and inserted herself between Mac and Kaitlin. “No, she doesn’t. We’re here because she wants to learn.”
“Well, I’d be happy to give you some pointers,” he said.
“I was about to do that.” Mary Jane walked to the wall, extracted a pool cue from the rack there, and gave Mac a backward glance, her dark eyes filled with invitation. Kaitlin could see Mary Jane was hot for this guy. And further, noticed Kaitlin, the way he took her hand and slowly removed the chalk from it telegraphed his willingness to reciprocate with anything she had in mind, and that included much more than pool. These two were sending out waves of electricity. It was a wonder the room didn’t glow.
“Uh, guys,” Kaitlin said to remind them she was there to learn the game, not watch two pool sharks run through their version of foreplay.
“Right then,” said Mary Jane. She broke, and for the rest of the evening Kaitlin forgot about writer’s block, Zack, and the odd letters to the newspaper. She was having fun.
“Not bad,” said Mary Jane when Kaitlin hit a bank shot into the side pocket. By now Mac had his arm around Mary Jane’s shoulders, and she was leaning into him.
Kaitlin was lining up her next shot when the door opened, letting in the cool evening air and a new customer, a tall, broad-shouldered woman who stopped just inside to let Kaitlin finish her shot.
She was nervous knowing a stranger was watching. She missed. “Nice try,” said the woman. She continued around the table and headed for the bar.
“Okay, Barney.” The woman spoke to a guy lying with his head on the bar’s surface. “Time to pack up and go home.” He stirred a little, gave her a tiny smile, and let her shuffle him out the door. “Be back in a minute, Kenny. Meantime set me up with a rum and coke.”
“Bye, Barney,” called the patrons sitting at the bar.
“Every other Thursday like clockwork,” said Mac to Kaitlin and Mary Jane. “Barney wanders in here to spend part of his paycheck from the gas company, has a couple of beers, dozes on the bar, and his wife Barbara comes in to get him. She loads him into the back seat of the car to sleep it off while she shoots a game or two of pool. She’s pretty good, too.”
Barbara reentered and heard Mac’s comments. “I’m better than pretty good. I beat your ass enough times, Mac.”
Mac gave one of his lopsided grins. “Let me introduce you to a couple of my friends, Mary Jane and Kaitlin.”
“How about a game?” Mary Jane asked of Barbara. For the first time since they entered the place, Kaitlin saw Mary Jane’s attention diverted from Mac. Kaitlin figured Mary Jane liked pool a bit more than she liked Mac, but, of course, she’d met him only recently and, from what she’d told Kaitlin, pool had been a companion for many years.
“Say, you look familiar.” Barbara turned her attention to Kaitlin as she chalked her cue. “You play too?”
“No, I’m just learning from her.” Kaitlin nodded toward Mary Jane. “But I grew up here. I’m back for the summer.”
“I remember now. I was several grades in front of you. My name was Dawson then. Now it’s Bartlet.” Barbara took her time with her next shot, put good back spin on the cue ball, hit it straight on and sunk the seven. The cue ball teetered on the edge of the pocket, but held.
“Nice shot,” said Mary Jane.
“Thanks. You new around here?” she asked.
“My son and I are staying with Kaitlin.”
“So I guess everyone has heard about poor Leda?” Barbara tried a bank shot and missed. “Darn.” She dropped the butt end of her cue stick on the floor. “I heard through the grapevine that you’re taking over her column, Kaitlin. As I remember you were always interested in writing.” She leaned her broad hips back against a chair and watched Mary Jane as she began running the table.
“My dogs are killing me. I spent all day at ARC. I’m the supervising nurse in the Alzheimer’s wing there, and Mr. Delt, who’s got a real eye for one of the new residents, about ran my feet off me. He followed that poor woman around from ten this morning until I left at four.
“Leda volunteered there as an ombudsman, and I got to know her a little. Let me tell you. That woman had more money than anyone realized. But it makes sense when you think about it. Her husband’s grandfather was one of the investors in the Kinderkill Bottling Company, you know, the one that served up Kinderkill water to the people of downstate.”
“But that operation went bust in the nineteen twenties,” said Kaitlin.