Read The Marriage at the Rue Morgue (A Rue and Lakeland Mystery) Online
Authors: Jessie Bishop Powell
“I’m sorry to say it, but Noel is right,” my grandmother chimed in.
“No you aren’t,” Mama argued. “You’re not sorry at all. You’ve been taking her part since she was a toddler arguing with me over cookies.”
While Nana tried to convince Mama that we needed to make do with the craft store on the edge of town, I made a quick escape into Hannah’s Rags, owned and operated by my best friend Hannah Rice.
“I’ll be a second,” I chirped, and left them bickering on the town square. I believe Mama tried to call after me, but I ignored her.
I always loved to go into Hannah’s. Her window displays were a study in contrasts, with sometimes a neat little girl’s dress, complete with pinafore, hanging next to a dashiki, or a spiffy suit paired up with ripped jeans and time-faded shirts. Today, she had a funny little half jacket hanging above a pair of parachute pants. Staring at the storefront was enough to ease my tension with a sense of the whimsy she brought into everything.
Inside, there was Hannah along with two other friends, gossiping around the counter. If anything could have made that blasted afternoon feel better, it was these three. I’d known all of them for years, but Hannah the longest. We were best friends since first grade, back when hers was one of only a few black families in town. She went away to college someplace out east. Our undergraduate years predated the widespread use of the Internet and cell phones, so we lost touch for a little while.
Then when I was in grad school, she came back. She called out of the blue one afternoon, and it was like neither of us had ever been away. She came home to open her store, taking a bet that the nation’s only social-justice-science-centered university could provide enough clientele to revitalize a downtown area that was lagging behind. She bet wisely, and soon her vintage store was joined by a dozen more shops. Today, she was sketching something that she swiped under the register as soon as she looked up and saw me at the door.
“Hello there! Were your ears burning?” asked Mina Tudor. Mina’s daughter grabbed a phone out of her mother’s purse and drifted away down the aisle. Mina and her daughter were carbon copies of each other, with green eyes and red hair styled into identical bobs. I went to high school with Mina. She stayed in town and completed her undergraduate degree at Ironweed. These days, she was a stay-at-home parent, and her preteen daughter lurked out of range of the group, pretending interest in the store’s contents so she could send text messages without her mom and her mom’s friends hanging over her shoulder.
“Only from my mother’s scalding,” I said.
Jan Willoughby added, “You almost caught us talking about your big present.” Jan was six feet tall and the only blonde in the group. She also had on a tie-dye shirt and one of those crinkly skirts designed to give off earth mother charm. Jan was anything but an earth mother. The clothing was absolutely a front.
“Very funny,” I told her. Lance and I had been very clear that gifts were to go to the center, not us. “Anyway, why aren’t you off in Columbus fighting for a bigger share of the pie?”
Jan was a corporate lawyer. She had moved to Ironweed because her therapist told her if she didn’t get some relaxation, self-imposed stress would kill her before she turned fifty. She fired the therapist and moved out here. She claimed her commute was the calmest part of her day. When she wasn’t wearing a suit and tie, she dressed like this. And she had an irresistible laugh, which she turned on now. “Even the Great White Shark needs a day off here and there.”
I turned to Hannah. “You better not be getting me a personal gift,” I warned.
“Scout’s honor,” she said.
“We dropped out of scouts together.”
We all laughed again, and Hannah said, “You’re about as prickly as a cactus today. What do you need, honey? Do you want Jan to file suit against your mom?” We laughed some more, especially since Jan, while she could eat somebody up at the office, in the courtroom, or on the basketball court, was otherwise pretty laid-back (one reason she fired the therapist).
“Sell me something. I ran away from the centerpiece committee out there, and I’d better have an excuse for it when I catch back up to them.”
“OK, I’m on it,” Hannah said.
She vanished into the back of the store and emerged less than two minutes later with a pair of antique hair combs she had gotten at an estate sale. My debit card suffered dearly for my few minutes of centerpiece-free living, but I was pretty sure Hannah sold them to me at cost. The combs were delicate mother-of-pearl, and they would look perfect with my veil. The interlude was worth every penny.
When I returned, Mama and Nana weren’t by the car, they were prowling the aisles of Winkie’s Trinkets, Mama bemoaning the fact that even if they
find the perfect thing on a day’s notice, it wouldn’t be available in the right quantity on time. I bit my tongue and did not say I had told her so. The boutique’s owner, a good friend of Mama’s, told her three times that she needed to go shopping out on the bypass. Mama glared daggers at me for failing to plan well enough to support the local economy.
But when I said, “Let’s go face the box store,” she came along without further complaint.
When we got to the craft store, Mama resumed the battle of what kind of centerpieces to use. She held up garland next to candles, wondering aloud, “Would it be too autumnal, do you think, to wrap the garland around a big candle? Or maybe that would be Christmas.”
“I thought we were using the floating votives,” I said, maneuvering our cart over to glassware. I thought I could get different kinds of bowls so the centerpieces weren’t all identical. That would be more my style.
Then my phone rang. Lance. “Where are you?” he asked without preamble. I could tell he wasn’t calling to tell me he had sorted out the family squabble.
“Craft shop,” I said.
I named it.
“On the bypass?”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes tops. Meet me out front.”
“What is it, Lance? Is your mom hurt?” It didn’t matter that Alex had been the one calling him back at the house. I could still imagine any number of harms he could have caused his mother. I couldn’t believe Lance and I had been wishing him on her a few hours ago.
“Mom and Bub are fine. Dad’s here, and he can deal with them.”
But he didn’t make me ask. “Honey, we’ve got trouble at the sanctuary.”
He hung up before I could ask more.
“What happened?” Mama demanded at once. “Is Sophia ...”
“Sophia’s fine,” I said in a dazed voice. “Something out at the center. I knew I shouldn’t have left. I knew we should have gone back. I have to leave right
We were standing beside a mixed display of vases. As carefully as I could, I started loading them into the cart. All of them. When Nana realized what I was doing, she hurried over for a second cart so I didn’t stack them on top of one another. Mama stared at me the whole time, until I handed her my purse. “There,” I said. “Those are my centerpieces. You can do whatever you want with them. Lance and I are planning to stay with you and Daddy tonight. I hope I’ll see you at the rehearsal.”
I started to walk out, but then had to return to get my phone out of the purse and transfer it to my pocket, all the while imagining all of my friends and employees trapped inside the sanctuary barn by a run-amok orangutan.
Lance barely stopped long enough for me to get in, and if he had violated speed laws getting out to Mama’s earlier, he now made them seem like outmoded suggestions. I didn’t dare distract him by asking what crisis we were pelting toward, but rode instead clutching the grab bar, hoping he wasn’t about to catapult us off the road at every curve. My fingers felt cold, and they were going numb by the time the center came into view. Then I heard a siren and saw an ambulance flying up behind us in the rearview mirror.
“Oh no,” I said. “No, no.”
Lance said quietly, “I think they found him.”
“What?” But he didn’t answer. We turned down the center’s lane, and I craned my neck around to watch the approaching red lights.
“Found who?” I demanded as we reached the tree line. The emergency vehicle, still out on the main road, disappeared from my view. Nonetheless, and especially since Lance still didn’t answer me, I found myself whispering orders to it. “Keep going,” I said. “There’s someplace else you need to be.”
Found who, indeed.
I knew who.
But the wailing didn’t fade from my hearing, as it should have done if we were moving away from the ambulance down the lane and it was continuing up the road.
“No!” I told it. “You made a mistake!” The sirens got louder, and then it reappeared in my rearview. When we didn’t accelerate fast enough, it blew its horn and drove right up on our tail.
Lance increased his speed, sending us forward at some forty miles per hour down our narrow service road. He reached for the clicker that would open our gate, but the gate swung inward before his hands touched the button. Darnell was waiting right there in the golf cart, ready to let the ambulance in. He didn’t even seem concerned that the orangutan might be back here. I met his eyes as Lance and I sped past, and the chill that had started in my fingers spread all the way up my arms. Darnell’s skin is black. Very black. But right then, his face was sallow.
Lance hurried on, heedless of the fauna that might, and often did, cross our road. My stomach ached with the certain knowledge that in the hours we had been absent, something had gone irreversibly wrong. Lance whipped out of the ambulance’s way on the parking pad and screeched to a halt. Olivia and her fruit truck were gone, but the lunch crew was still present (far too late; they shouldn’t have still been there), and several vehicles crouched where only Darnell, Trudy, and Art’s cars had been parked before.
The barn doors sat wide open, and Lance and I pelted through them still ahead of the EMTs, who were running to catch up. In the seconds that it took my eyes to adjust to the dimmer barn light, I had time to see the silhouettes of our volunteers. They were arrayed near the lunch tables, almost as if things were normal. Almost like we might still find out things were fine. But then my vision cleared, and I saw a woman named Jen pointing wordlessly out the back door. I ran out back and halfway down to the enclosures, where Trudy knelt on the ground beside a bloody figure. Art. I threw myself down next to him and screamed his name. Back inside, I heard the EMTs clattering into the barn, calling for us to clear away.
Art lay still. Newly formed bruises covered his body, and blood trickled out of his smashed nose. His gray hair was stained red. He didn’t look like the same person who we had left less than two hours ago. “Oh, Art,” I moaned. There was nowhere I could touch him. Not an inch lay unbloodied. And he was covered in tufts of orange orangutan hair.
Beside me, Lance swore, and then, when that didn’t improve the situation, let loose a string of curses that ended in a primal howl. The EMTs stopped their advance down the hill to stare at the madman storming around their patient. One said, “Sir, you need to step out of the way.”
Suddenly, Art’s eyes flew open. One of the pupils was fully dilated, staring straight at the sky, while the other swiveled unnervingly to focus on me. “Noel,” he said thickly.
“Art!” I wanted to hold him, but there wasn’t any part of his body where I dared to even put my hand.
“Security tapes,” he said. Gurgled, really.
“Art, don’t talk,” I tried to tell him. But I was crying now, not at all able to speak properly myself.
“Watch the tapes,” he said. “So smart.” His eyes were closing again. He was drifting. But he rallied one more time to say, “It tried to save me, Noel. That animal tried to save my life.” And then his eyes closed again, and Lance pulled me away so the EMTs could do their jobs.
Before we left to follow the ambulance back to the hospital, I had time to notice one thing. The primates, who had been worked into a fervor this morning, were all quiet. I think that was when I knew Art would die.
I sobbed all the way to the hospital, cursing myself for leaving him alone.
“He wasn’t alone,” Lance said. “Darnell and Trudy were there the whole time, and the lunch volunteers came in at noon.”
“What happened?” I asked.
Lance explained. “When she called, Trudy said Art went out to the security shed to get the tapes and didn’t come back. She wanted my OK to organize a search party.”
“He doesn’t need to get any tapes from the shed,” I protested. “They download to his computer every night.” Then, “I knew it, I knew it! He was going right back out there to look for it alone!”
“I don’t know,” Lance said. “Probably, yes.”
“He wasn’t out front,” I pointed out. “He would have been out front if he’d been going up to the security shed.”
“Probably,” Lance said again. “But he was telling you to look at the tapes.”
“For God’s sake, it’s all digital!” I cried. Lance glanced over at me, not risking his eyes off the road for long at this speed. I shook my head and set aside the question of why Art would claim we were looking for tapes when everything was digital. The man had a head injury. It was impossible to know what he meant. I said, “OK, so he went out front, then what? How did he get out back? He said the orangutan tried to save his life. Do you think he meant spare?”
“No,” Lance said. “I think he meant ‘save.’ ”
“Why? You saw all that hair. It already hit him once this morning. He thought it was pulling its punches then. Maybe that was his warning. Maybe he found it again, and . . .”
“No,” Lance said. “No. Darnell said Art came staggering up from the enclosures maybe five minutes after Trudy hung up with me. He was still talking then.”
“What did he say?”
“Not much that made any sense. The only thing that Darnell got before Trudy sent him to make sure the gate was open for the ambulance was something along the lines of, “He would have clubbed me to death if it hadn’t come along.”
?” I demanded, knowing that Lance had no better answer to that question than I did. “And which