Authors: Teresa Trent
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Women Sleuths
"Sorry Betsy I was just finishing up my lunch. Do you mind?" My father took a big bite out of a greasy cheeseburger and crunched on it from behind his desk at the Pecan Bayou Police Department. It was truly the most disgusting sandwich I had ever seen in my life, and he was choosing to consume it.
"No problem." I choked out. "I just wanted you to see what someone just left on my car."
He put down his sandwich as I handed him the note. He adjusted his glasses on the end of his nose as he read the scrawled message.
"Where did you say you found this?"
"On my car parked outside the animal shelter."
"Normally, I would say this is probably just a prank, but in light of all that's happened I think we need to take this pretty seriously. Is this the first time that you've been contacted with a message like this?"
"Betsy is this the first time?" His scowl revealed he was onto me. Nothing like having a father and a cop in one.
"No," I admitted. "This is not the first warning that I've gotten. There was an anonymous e-mail with the same message."
"Why didn't you tell me about it?"
"I don't know. Maybe like you, I thought it was just random and not serious. A prank."
"I'm going to keep hold of this note. Luckily the department already has our fingerprints on file, and maybe we can find another set."
"And if anything, I mean
like this happens again I need to know about it right away, do you understand?"
"I do," I said. "I also need to tell you about some of the things that I've found out about Rocky's last investigative articles. Nicholas Wendell has been helping me to look into Edgar West. We're pretty sure he's lying about what he was doing on the night of the fire."
"Who is Nicholas Wendell?"
"The new newspaper guy. He's setting up shop across the street from the old Gazette office."
"That was fast."
"I know, right? When I asked West where he was on the night of the fire, he said he was alone working on taxes. Don't you think that's a little bit strange that he's working on somebody's taxes in November?"
"He said the same thing when we questioned him."
"Yes, but Nicholas Wendell found out they were doing some work on his floor during that time so he didn't even have a computer set up. And one more thing...Nicholas says he has an incredibly bad credit rating."
"Now that's a possible motive. Did he give you the names of any clients who could vouch for him??"
"No. He just said he was working."
"So there's no way to corroborate his alibi?" Mr. West was looking more and more guilty. If he wasn't in his office, was he over at the Gazette with a book of matches?
"Oh my gosh."
"Betsy, are you alright?"
"You probably don't know this, but there's a web cam down Main Street. Pearly and Reggie Schroeder use one to be the virtual dog catcher. It's a live stream."
"You mean there's a camera on us on Main Street? The whole world can see us, and nobody knows?"
"Not only that, but they record the night feed to look for stray dogs and cats and catch them the next day."
"What about the night of the fire? Does it show the Gazette?"
Betsy thought about seeing Birdie's turkey in the window. "It would have been harder to see at night, but yeah, the Gazette would be in the picture."
Ten minutes later we were back at the animal shelter. Reggie was sorting through digital files on his computer looking for the night of the fire.
"We don't keep all of the recordings, but we kept this one because we got a nice shot of the fire. Talk about your reality TV."
He pulled up a video of a darkened Main Street. The Pecan Bayou Diner sign now blinked neon through the blackness.
"You just wait one minute, and you'll start to see a little bitty flame."
Out of a top story window a small flame started rising up. Then another and another.
"Can you go back?" I asked.
Reggie slid the viewing bar on the screen. I had been focusing on the flames starting and didn't notice there was a clear outline of a person who was helping someone else into the building, but in what seemed like less than a minute only one person came back out.
"Can you tell who that is?" My father asked.
The figure was nearly in silhouette, but seemed to be taller than the other person being helped into the building.
I squinted at the screen as Reggie reran the recording.
"No. It's too blurry."
"Oh! Oh!" Pearly said. "Stop the feed."
We all turned to her. "There! Can't you see it?"
"Oh yeah." Reggie said.
We all looked at the screen where she was pointing to a small blur. "Looks like we got ourselves a stray cat."
My dad's cell phone rang. "Okay Art, I'll be right over. Thanks for calling."
"Art has something?"
"That's why I'm headed there. I'm going to need a copy of that video."
"No problem. Reggie will email it to you." Pearly said.
"Betsy, do you want to come with me to the morgue?"
As much as I wanted to know what Art had for us, I just couldn't handle going to the morgue.
"I'll let you find out. Just drop me back by my car."
"Sure. You still seem a little puny to me."
If he only knew.
It took me an hour to get the mixture of the cheeseburger and the puppy urine out of my nose, but I was finally starting to feel better. I sat working on the computer when Butch, our dog came over and put his head on my lap.
"What's the matter, boy?"
He looked up at me with big brown eyes. I bent closer as if he would utter a word in my ear. He tipped his snout up and licked my face. I couldn't decide if I felt loved or simply slobbered on.
"Love you too."
I turned back to my computer when the phone on the desk rang.
"Betsy? This is Phyllis Hamlin. Just wanted to touch base with you on your part of the Harvest Dance."
"Right. Now you know you will be in charge of the pumpkin squares. I've taken the liberty of emailing you the recipe. We have served pumpkin squares every year for the last ten years at Nolan Ryan Middle School, and so you need realize the importance of creating this culinary delight. Our children look forward to their pumpkin squares."
Good grief. I wasn't sure if I was making cookies or being asked to watch the royal jewels.
"Thank you, Phyllis. I'll do my best."
"Very good. I realize that you haven't ever been a part of the royal circle before. I have been there many times with my son and my older daughter. She was Harvest queen all three years in middle school. My children have always been chosen for these honors up until this year when your son was voted in. I suppose we have to share the glory now and then."
And all that "sharing" was killing her. "If it's any comfort to you Phyllis, we were all quite shocked about Tyler being the Harvest King. He's so new to the school; we didn't expect anything like this."
"I'm sure it was a surprise. Your own son has never had any kind of honor like that."
"No. Not yet."
"You can always hope. Now with the paper gone, I don't suppose there will be much press coverage for your stepson."
I had wanted to find out what Phyllis knew, and now she had done me the courtesy of bringing up the fire. "Yes, too bad. You were certainly very vigilant in getting coverage for our kids."
"I had to. That Rocky Whitson would have buried our press releases behind that idiot Shorty Martin's hunting articles or whatever else he thought was more newsworthy. Of course, not the valuable content you added as the Happy Hinter, but the rest of that paper was a mishmash of gossip, recipes and wild bits of news."
"I don't know. I kind of liked the paper. It was Rocky's passion. I think he did a good job covering the town."
"You worked for him dear. It's a little different when you're looking at it from my side. Our youth are our most important commodity."
"I suppose you're right. It seems like the last time I saw you with him you were pretty angry."
"Yes, I was. He had no right to bury that picture and then..." She began to choke up. "Then the way he talked to me as if I was a small child. That was uncalled for." She was really upset. Had she been hurt enough to start a fire?
"I know you told me you had Bunco at your house on the night of the fire."
"And I was just wondering if you ever had to run out for anything?"
"Funny you should ask, but I did run out to pick up some more box wine. Confidentially some of those ladies can really put away the Pinot." She stopped speaking and then continued. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no reason. Just curious."
"For your information, I hated the man, but I certainly wouldn't waste a match to kill him. He was a small petty insect to me, and it only figures that someone would eventually swat him out of my life."
Well put. To Phyllis Hamlin we were all just little bugs on her windshield. I wondered just how angry I could make her. She was wound pretty tight, so I decided to pull on her string.
"Oh Phyllis you don't know the half of it. He was like a little god in that place. You should have heard him talk when you went out the door." There was a stunned gasp on the other end.
"Go on," she said.
"You know he had a pecking order, right? Did you ever wonder why certain people would get to have their stories on the front page and others were stuck back by the classifieds?"
"I knew it!"
"Oh sure. As a matter of fact he would take the extra pictures you brought him and just throw them in the trash can after you left. We would laugh about it."
"We? Do you mean you were in on it too?"
"I worked there. I certainly didn't want my column lost between the Finley's Funeral Home ad and the lonely hearts classifieds."
"I see," she said.
I had been waiting for a hot-blooded confession, but she seemed to freeze over like an April cruise on the Titanic.
"Just thought you should know." I said trying to get her talking again.
"Have the pumpkin squares there by six thirty." The line went dead.
It wasn't the response I wanted, and still, I felt I had planted a seed. It probably wasn't such a good idea to tick off the queen of the PTA, but somehow I didn't think the list of people she liked was all that long anyway.
I checked my email and found the pumpkin square recipe and printed it off. I had just enough time to get to the store to buy the ingredients. It would also give me an opportunity to pick up something else. It was time to take a test, and I had a nervous feeling I just might pass it on the first try.
As I stood at the feminine product aisle at Super Walley I knew I should have thought of this days ago. I tried counting back to my last menstrual cycle and realized it had been over a month. How could I miss something like this? I needed to start out by confirming my worst fear. I had already put the ingredients for the pumpkin squares in my basket. I was informed by the stocker that they hadn't ordered enough for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, and I had the last few cans of pumpkin in the entire town. They wouldn't get another truckload in until next week. I placed the coveted cans in my cart and then a large package of toilet paper. This way I could cover up the kit until I could get to the self-checkout. I looked up and down the aisle for anyone familiar and then picked up a pregnancy home test kit. I could have gone over to the drugstore, but too many people would recognize me, and you'd have to be pretty naive to think they aren't watching whatever it is you're taking off of the shelf. Another thing the chamber of commerce doesn't tell you about in small towns.
"Betsy?" I startled and in a panic jammed the box into the top folds of my purse. It's one thing to get caught, but another to be nabbed by the police. Elaina, in her Pecan Bayou Police Department uniform stood staring at my poorly hidden item.
"If you think you're going to steal that, I would have to say you're the worst shoplifter I've ever seen in the history of petty theft." I pulled the box out of my bag. Elaina's eyes widened as she took it from me and realized what it was.
"Whoa Nellie ..." she said. "Betsy are you... "
"I don't know, yet." Elaina put her hand to her mouth hiding her smile. "You can't tell anybody, do you hear?"
As if to prove her trustworthiness she grabbed me by the shoulders and started jumping up and down. That wouldn't attract any attention.
"This is wonderful!"
"Before we get too far in the celebrating, I need to take the test first, Elaina."
"But if you're here buying a test that must mean that you're pretty sure that you're pregnant!" I pulled her aside shushing her.
"Elaina try to contain yourself."
"Sorry. It's just so exciting. I understand you don't want people to know yet. What does Leo think? "
"Leo doesn't know, does he? "She asked.
"Not yet. "
"So when are you going to tell him?"
I eeked out a whisper. "I'm just not sure that... That Leo is ready to have a child."
"Of course he is. I don't see what the big deal is. You are married after all. Married people do have babies." Elaina thumped me on the back.
Ruby Green walked up to us right as Elaina said the forbidden word "babies".
"Hello there girls. Things are slow so I decided to pick up a case of shampoo. It's amazing how quickly we go through that stuff. What brings you here?"
"Oh... I'm... picking up ingredients to make pumpkin squares for the middle school dance. I've been given the honor of making them this year. "
Elaina pitched in. "They should be especially good. You are the Happy Hinter."
Ruby glanced down at the box in Elaina's hand. "Is there something you're not telling us Elaina?" Her face was an exact replica of the one Elaina had just a few minutes earlier.
"Oh this." She said. "Ummmm ..... I like to have an extra one on hand... Just in case, you know. "
"Really? Cause if I did know better I would think you were pregnant. Does Adam know about this? A baby from a district attorney and a policewoman might just turn out to be the next Governor of Texas, and we all know what that can lead to."
"What a thought. Don't worry, no baby here. Betsy would you do me a favor and buy this for me? I wouldn't want to alarm Adam, and well, you are married." I was amazed at how she just turned it around.
"I'd be glad to, Elaina. It's the least I can do for such a good friend."
Ruby put her arm around Elaina's shoulders. "Elaina, if you have a problem you're among friends."
"I'm fine," she said.
"Sure you are." Ruby gave Elaina a little hug. "An unplanned pregnancy is never easy. Betsy here can tell you all about it." More than you know, I thought. I would thank Elaina later.
"You are so wrong about this, Miss Ruby." Elaina pleaded.
"Here, Betsy. You put that down." Ruby said. "I'll buy it for you, Elaina. I'm not worried about what people will think, an old broad like me." Ruby took the pregnancy test out of my hands and headed for the register. I wondered how many minutes it would take for the entire town to find out Elaina was pregnant.
I made it back home in time for the boys' arrival from school. Zach came in the door sullen and grumpy and immediately went to his room. Tyler came skipping in about an hour later.
"So are you ready for your big night tomorrow as the Harvest King?"
"You bet. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it."
"Has Zach said anything about the dance?"
"Not to me."
I made supper for the boys, and Leo called to tell me he was working.
"That's fine. I have to make Phyllis Hamlin's precious pumpkin squares tonight anyway."
"You have to bake? Wasn't there any other way you could help?"
"Come on now it's not that bad. Phyllis emailed me the recipe, and it looks pretty simple. Now all I have to do is put everything together and pop it in the oven. I don't see what you're so concerned about."
I heard the rumble of a male voice behind him. Tonight he was at his other job, and it was quite a relief not to hear Jeanette Burress giggling in his ear. What would he think if he knew about the pregnancy test I had tried to buy that day.
After finishing dinner with the boys, I started working up the batches of pumpkin squares. By Phyllis's estimates I had to have enough pumpkin squares to feed 100 people. That worked out perfectly to four cookie sheets which fit neatly in my double ovens. I followed her directions exactly, and the batter came out nice and smooth and poured beautifully into my prepared pans. Feeling confident now, I thought this might be just the thing I needed to redeem myself and get rid of my terrible baking reputation. I was about to set the timer when someone knocked at my front door.
"I'm so glad I found you at home." Elaina said. She had changed out of her police uniform and now stood at my front door in skinny jeans and a long brown sweater.
"Come on in." Elaina stepped inside clutching her purse to her side.
"You cannot believe what I've been through this afternoon." I was afraid of this.
"The whole town thinks I'm pregnant."
"Oh no. That's my fault."
"You're damn right it is. I have gotten so many hugs today. Your dad even asked if I needed to have a talk. This couldn't get any worse."
"Did you tell them that you weren't pregnant?"
"I told them over and over again, but nobody would believe me." I knew she was right. The only way she could clear the air was to tell them that it was my pregnancy test. She had taken the baby bullet for me.
"Oh Elaina, I am so sorry."
"Yeah, you should've seen Adam's face."
"What did he say?"
"It was kind of interesting. He seemed sort of excited at first, and then when I told him that the pregnancy test wasn't even for me, he looked a little disappointed."
"Did you tell him it was my pregnancy test?"
"I know I promised I wouldn't tell anybody, but I had to tell him."
"That's fine. I'm so sorry I put you in this situation to begin with. I promise that I will take the test and then announce it to the world."
"That's good." She started searching in her bag to put her hands on the small cardboard box. Just as she was about to pull it out, my father came up the steps behind her. Elaina quickly jammed it back into her purse.
"Well hello there Elaina. I didn't expect to find you here. I have to say I'm glad that you're confiding in Betsy. I know how you women like to stick together in times like these." My dad gave Elaina a fatherly nod.
"I told you Judd, I'm not pregnant."
"I know you what you told me. As a matter fact I think you can probably argue your case better than your boyfriend at this point. Still though, where there's smoke there's fire." Elaina let out a guttural growl and glared at me. She was waiting for me to straighten my father out, but I just wasn't ready to confess. When she saw that I was not going to explain to him about the test, she rolled her eyes back and turned to go.
"Thanks for stopping by Elaina. You're a great friend and hang in there. This will all work itself out really soon."
"Yeah, right." She walked on down the stairs zipping up her leather purse and my pregnancy test. So close, yet so far way.
"She's temperamental already. Just wait until she gets into the last trimester. There will be no living with her."
How would I ever make this up to Elaina?
"Darlin', may I come in?"
"Oh yes. I'm sorry."
"I just wanted to share with you that I've continued to do some background checking on Edgar West."
"Did his alibi check out?"
"No it did not. Edgar West is not exactly the person he portrays himself to be."
"I knew it."
"Not so fast Betsy. Your instincts about Edgar were right, but he is not who killed Rocky."
This was the first time my father had stated that someone had might have killed Rocky. It was painful to hear. He sighed deeply and continued. "Edgar West has a secret that he doesn't want anybody to know."
"That he's really just running everybody's taxes through TurboTax?"
"No, Edgar West has a gambling habit. He likes to play the ponies, bet on basketball and is a regular over at the casinos on the Texas-Louisiana border. He's over there so much I'm surprised he doesn't have his own coffee mug in the employee lounge."
"How did you figure all this out?"
"It wasn't so hard for an old detective like me. I did a run of his finances and found most of his credit card charges were at the casinos. From there I just had to call up the casino to see if I could request some of their footage on the night of the fire. It didn't take me long to find him losing at a poker table. He might be able to do people's taxes in eight minutes, but he can lose $1000 in less time than that."
"So, I guess that takes Edgar out of the picture."
"It sure does. Now we start back at square one."
"I do have somebody else on my radar right now. Have you ever thought about Phyllis Hamlin?"
"You know the head of the PTA at the boy's school. She was one of the people who was unhappy with Rocky right before the fire."
"Okay. Why would you think she's capable of murder?"
"I'm not sure yet, but when it comes to her son, she is pretty driven."
"She is not the first pushy mama in Pecan Bayou."
He was right maybe I was reading too much into it.
"What is that smell? Is something burning?"
"What smell?" I shrieked and turned to grab some potholders and pulled the pumpkin squares out of the oven.
"I hope the fire department's rested up so they don't have to come put out your oven. You probably should have put them on alert before you started baking." The pumpkin squares were ruined. They looked like four large black smoky rectangles. I felt tears starting to overtake me.
"Oh now, Betsy don't cry. You just burned something. You can get all of the ingredients again and start over and keep burning them until you get it right."
That didn't help at all. More tears started to flow.
"Dad, I had the last cans of pumpkin in Pecan Bayou until next week. I have to have these pumpkin squares at the dance tomorrow night. It's the only job Phyllis Hamlin gave me, and I screwed it up."
"We'll go buy some then."
"We can't. This is from a special recipe."
"Then we'll call Maggie and see if she has any pumpkin."
Zach stood on the edge of the kitchen. "What's the matter mom? Is it Mr. Rocky?"
"No." I wailed. "I burnt the pumpkin squares."
"Women!" Tyler yelled from the stairs.