Authors: Teresa Trent
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Women Sleuths
After Leo finished his second weather segment he asked me to meet him for a late breakfast. It was amazing that the Pecan Bayou Diner was open so soon after the fire. I guess the water barrier the fire department put up worked. As we entered the diner, Birdie and the regulars were focused on the television that hung above the counter.
We slid into the booth, and as Leo picked up his menu, Birdie and another woman clapped from across the restaurant.
"There's the man himself," Birdie said as she set out silverware wrapped in napkins. The smells of the diner didn't quite overcome the smell of the lingering smoke left from Rocky's fire.
"We were just watching you on the television. Clear skies and in the sixties all the way up to Thanksgiving. Now that's the kind of weather forecast I like hearing."
"You were watching me on television just now?"
"Oh sure. We always watch Hurricane Hal first thing in the morning. Now we get to watch lovely Leo." My husband was not a man that sought out the limelight, and so this whole show of appreciation made him a little uncomfortable. Phyllis Hamlin who was picking up a to-go order pushed some cash into the cashier's hands and scurried over.
"When they told me they were going to have a replacement for Hurricane Hal I just couldn't imagine who it would be. I'm going to have to congratulate Stanley for making such an excellent choice." She drank in the sight of him and then turned to me. "Oh, and Betsy, so glad I ran into you. We need to talk about what the Harvest King will be bringing to the dance."
Mrs. Hamlin searched in her finely tooled brown leather handbag and finally pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She withdrew one from the pack and then reached for a slim gold lighter. "I just can't stand it sometimes. I wish I had never started with these terrible things. I'll bet you don't smoke, Leo, not with that beautiful voice of yours."
She was flirting openly with my husband. It was as if I wasn't even sitting there. I wondered if this was what it was like to be the wife of a star. Was it my imagination or was there estrogen dripping from the overhead fans? What is the deal with women and weathermen?
"Now you know you can't smoke in here Mrs. Hamlin. Take it outside," Birdie said as she scooted her out the door with her apron.
Phyllis Hamlin waved with her cigarette hand, smoke trailing behind her. "I'll call you!" She said. The only problem was I wasn't sure just which one of us she was referring to.
"Who is that woman exactly?"
"Oh that's Phyllis Hamlin. She's the head of the PTA and controller of all things at the boys' school. I can't believe you don't know her."
"She sure seemed to be entranced by you Mr. Weather God. Better keep your eye on that one."
Leo laughed. "I think you're safe Betsy. She's not my type."
"Better not be."
Birdie came over with our ice water. I looked around the diner and noticed most of the booths were empty. "Where is everybody? This place is usually packed this time of day. Don't people know that even with the fire you're open?"
"It's the flu, Betsy. Half the town is out with it. Mother made some of her special slow cooker chicken noodle soup, and it's been selling by the gallon. All our business today is to go. Nobody feels like sitting around here."
"Who do you know that has it?"
"Let's see. Mayor Obermeyer's sick. His wife's been in for the last two days picking up soup. Earl's Coffee is closed because he was so sick. He probably got the whole town sick before he shut his doors. Celia from Benny's barbecue is down with it and so is the baby. I'm telling you this town is going fast." She raised her penciled-in eyebrows switching to automatic cheerful waitress voice. "Now what can I get for you two?"
"You know, I think I'll pass," I said.
"Are you sure?" Leo said. "I'm so hungry I could eat half the menu." He patted his thin middle.
"You go right ahead. I had a big bowl of cereal this morning."
"Oh cereal won't last you half an hour. You want to have some eggs or something," Birdie said.
"No, I'm fine." The thought of a couple of greasy eggs and bacon from the diner made me want to throw up.
Later as Leo dove into his short stack and scrambled eggs, I glanced out the window at the sunny November day. Even with the bright blue and lack of humidity I still felt low. The paper was gone, and Rocky was missing. Life around Pecan Bayou would never be the same.
"Betsy?" I quickly pulled my gaze back to Leo who was carefully watching me. Birdie came over as he put some cash into the little black folder that held our check. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Huh?" I looked up to see Mayor Obermeyer's wife walking by the diner window on Main Street. She stared straight at Leo and smiled revealing a set of dimples in her rounded cheeks. She lifted up her hand and waved frantically at my husband. "Oh my, I think you must have another admirer."
"Great, I never had this kind of trouble when the only women I worked around had their heads in the clouds."
"She's a focused disturbance that's for sure." As I said that another woman came and stood next to her, and they pointed openly at us making me feel like the orangutan in the zoo. Once they finished pointing him out they went into spontaneous giggles.
"Should I wave back?" Leo asked.
"Don't you dare. That will only encourage them." I rose from the table and suddenly felt a surge of heat rush through me. What did Bertie have the thermostat on anyway? "I'm ready." I choked out.
From the counter the part-time waitress, Susie, shrieked as she and Jimmy, the cook, seemed to be chasing Birdie out of the dining room area.
"It's Birdie," she said grabbing a dish towel. "She just threw up."
After kissing Leo goodbye and sending him on his way to his real job, I went to the grocery store to stock up on Sprite for Zach even though he had returned to school. In truth the Sprite was for me. The aisles of the supermarket were not overly crowded as I guided my shopping cart through the tall rows of evenly aligned products. On my way to the soft drink aisle I passed through precisely stacked piles of fruits and vegetables thinking I might do better with a simpler diet. I noticed Miss Caroline choosing an eggplant.
"Miss Caroline, it's great I ran into you. I wanted to let you know that before the fire at the Gazette, I was going to be using your cornbread stuffing recipe in the paper." She held the eggplant in her arthritic hands and placed it in her basket with a great effort.
"Oh yes, the fire. So sad. Mr. Whitson was a lovely man. It really was the best stuffing I've ever made." She brought her glasses down her nose and examined me. "I'm sorry, have we met?"
"Oh, I'm the one who's sorry. I'm Betsy Fitzpatrick, I write The Happy Hinter Column." She still looked as if she had no idea who I was as she now pursed her bottom lip."
"Uh, of course, dear. It's nice to meet you. Now that I know I was almost in the paper again I'll have to be excited and disappointed all at once."
I reached over and picked up a bunch of bananas and placed them into my basket.
"Oh, those are good for potassium. You'll need that," she said as she started wheeling her creaky cart away from me.
"Thanks." I waved thinking Miss Caroline was just a little kooky. I came around a display of sweet potatoes when I noticed a man next to the bagged salad looking my way. It seemed like a pretty strange place to be picking up women on a weekday morning. I'm sure the fruits and vegetable section of your local supermarket must be in the top ten list for meeting your next hot date. I attempted to steal a glance and realized he was wearing sunglasses and was looking straight at me. He quickly looked away, hiding the view of his face. I tried to play it off like I was really scanning the counters full of produce.
I pushed my cart towards the cereal aisle putting the man in the sunglasses behind me. Maybe I could get out of the store before he did. I thought about calling Leo, but really all the guy did was look my way. How exactly would I explain that one on the phone?
I turned to see Mrs. Thatcher from the Pecan Bayou Police Department. She was usually sitting behind her desk dispatching radio calls at this time of day so I was surprised to be running into her in the supermarket.
What are you doing here at this hour" I asked.
"They do let me out every once in a while for good behavior."
"Oh. Have you heard anything more about the fire?"
"Not much, only that they are pretty sure that it was Rocky's body among the ashes. This town just won't be the same without him." Mrs. Thatcher was in her fifties and divorced and was one of the many middle-aged women who had openly flirted with Rocky.
"Oh I'm so sorry. I know this must be very upsetting for you."
As I was about to answer her I looked over and saw the creepy guy again. "Do you see that guy?"
"What guy?" She adjusted her cat eye glasses on her nose searching the aisles in front of us.
"That guy." I turned to gesture towards the man in the jacket, but he was no longer there. I made a complete turn surveying the entire store and couldn't see him anywhere.
"Where did he go? He was just right there." I said pointing to nothing.
She patted my arm gently. "Betsy, dear you look a little peaked. Maybe all of this is getting to you."
I turned around one more time looking for the stranger. He had disappeared. Miss Caroline who was now busy squeezing perfectly good loaves of bread looked up and waved her misshapen fingers at me.
"I must be crazy. You're probably right. Zach just went through a bout of the flu. Maybe I'm coming down with it."
"Oh, well that explains everything. You know the best thing for flu, don't you? Plenty of fluids. Drink water, juice, soup. It's all good. You can put that advice in the paper."
"Not anymore, I guess."
"Oh, you're right. What was I thinking? Losing Rocky also means you've lost a job. You still have your little show on Nutty TV. I record it all the time and come back and watch it. If you ever need any other helpful hints, Mrs. Thatcher the dispatcher is at your service." She clicked her heels and saluted.
"I appreciate that."
"And Betsy," she said from behind her hand in a hushed voice, "I promise not to tell a soul about your ... seeing things."
It could have been worse. I might have talked about being stalked by strange men in front of Ruby Green and had it mentioned between every haircut down at the Hairhouse. Whatever Mrs. Thatcher thought of me - this guy was real, and whether it was the flu or not, a chill went through me.
Given that I was now out of a job I figured I'd better get to work looking for other outlets for the Happy Hinter column. Maybe I could syndicate to several newspapers? I could start freelancing articles and keep doing my efficiency checks on local businesses. I had grown so comfortable with working for Rocky, and now it seemed like I was starting all over again. Certainly my exposure in the newspaper had led to my fifteen minutes of weekly fame on NUTV, but still I felt the need to scramble because my largest reader base had just evaporated. People in small towns don't always choose the Internet for their latest helpful hint.
I opened my laptop and began searching for newspaper listings in the Tri-county area but was immediately distracted with the desire to check my e-mail. I don't know why, but I have to constantly check my e-mail. How many store circulars and spam e-mails could I waste my time on? I guess the answer was limitless because I couldn't make a visit to my laptop without pulling them up. I had a PTA email, but didn't click on it. I could read it later. I also had a monthly newsletter about the dangers of fleas and ticks from Dr. Springer. Finally, I had an e-mail from someone whose name I didn't recognize. Chances were it was spam or some Nigerian prince offering me scads of money if I would just help out with one tiny thing. I would have deleted it on the spot except that the subject line read "To the Happy Hinter". I was about to click on it when there was a tapping on my front door. I could see the navy blue of my father's uniform through the cut class window.
I opened the door. "For a minute there I thought you were a little girl who keeps bringing Zach gifts. It seems he has an admirer."
"That's my boy." Judd said trying to sound upbeat even though his smile was not quite there. His downcast face held a clue that the news he had to share with me was not going to be easy. "I need to talk to you darlin'. I was hopin' to catch you at home."
I tried to make light of it, hoping my instincts were wrong.
"We've all been pretty busy trying to sort out what happened down at the Gazette. You know we had Leroy Amundson, the fire marshal looking at the scene. He came up with some pretty interesting findings."
"Can I get you some coffee?" I wasn't sure I wanted to hear what he was about to tell me.
"That would be fine," he said his eyes watching me as he took a seat at my kitchen table.
"So Mr. Amundson thinks that the fire was arson?" I set the cup down in front of him and then started to sit. Another thought crossed my mind.
"We might have some cookies somewhere." I started to search the cupboards nearly knocking a box of crackers off the shelf.
"Betsy, I'm fine. Will you sit down?" He spoke his last words in a steady beat in an attempt to slow my nervous fiddling. I stopped trying to busy my way out of the situation and sat down leaning on my elbow.
"Arson." I repeated after him. "Arson? Who would want to set the Gazette on fire?"
"I think the question that you really have to ask yourself is who wouldn't? You know Rocky's been pretty successful at finding a way to piss off almost everybody in this town. Even I've wanted to knock that smile off his face on occasion."
I thought about someone possibly getting so mad at Rocky they would want to kill him. He was right. It could happen. Rocky always seemed to wiggle out of trouble.
"You were over at the Gazette on the last day, Betsy. Was Rocky particularly upset about anything?"
"I don't know. Things seemed to be going like they always do over there. Phyllis Hamlin from the PTA came in, and she was angry about something, but Rocky didn't seem to be worried about it. If anything he was enjoying it."
Phyllis had seemed so sophisticated as she played with the pearls on her neck. Who would have thought that she was a smoker? She just didn't look the part. My father waited for an answer. "Oh...and there were some others too, I'm sure."
He pulled out his little black notebook and started writing down my ramblings. We had entered the police questioning phase. "And you say she runs the PTA? Did she make any direct threats against Rocky?"
"What exactly do you mean?"
"You know like I'm going to kill you or I'm going to burn down the building? Something obvious like that."
"She was upset, but she wasn't that upset, Dad. Leo and I just saw her at Birdie's yesterday and she seemed fine. Tyler is the Harvest King at school, and her biggest concern was whether or not I would provide baked goods for the dance."
"Big mistake on her part," he said dryly.
"Did you find anything out about the tax guy?"
"Working on it. Would you have any old copies of the Gazette around here? Normally I would go down to the paper to look this up, but it's no longer there for me to go lookin'."
Decades of historical archives had been stored at the Gazette. Now it was all gone as well as so much of the history of Pecan Bayou.
"I have a stack for recycling in the garage."
"Let's have a look then."
After moving the boys' bikes, I reached over and handed my dad a musty paper.
"Rocky would put an ad for a tax preparation agency back near the classifieds possibly next to something like an ad for a septic service. His little joke." I found a tiny ad for the Eight-Minute Tax Man along with his telephone number and address. I looked at the face of Edgar West staring back at me. He was a balding middle-aged man with cheap black rimmed glasses that encircled beady black eyes. Obviously he thought by putting his picture in the ad would somehow attract the reader to his speedy tax preparation skills. After staring at his grainy image, there was no way I would trust someone like that to fill out a document I was sending to the government.
"Take it with you. I need to get back to looking for a new place for my column."
"I'll be sure to call the Houston Chronicle for ya."
"I only wish." After Dad left, I returned to my laptop. Before I really started my job quest, I checked my e-mail. The email to the Happy Hinter was still at the top of the list. I opened it expecting the blue screen of death informing me that I had just fallen prey to an infection from a computer virus of some sort. Instead, it was one simple sentence.
"Trust no one."