Authors: Maggody,the Moonbeams
Dahlia smiled sweetly. "Give me a holler when you get back to town and we'll finish our business. Don't go thinkin' you'll tell folks about this. Sows can be charmed, too."
"Why, look who's here," said Estelle as I came walking down the dock. "Maybe we ought to call Brother Verber to come offer a blessing. He ain't had much else to do since Mrs. Jim Bob went through his bag and poured his wine out the second-floor window. He was sitting out here earlier today, looking like he was trying to figure out how to turn water into wine, but the Almighty wasn't cooperating."
Ruby Bee kept her eyes on the plastic ball drifting in the water. "About time you showed your face."
I sat down beside her. "So what's been happening?"
"Why do you care? You upped and vanished more than two days ago, like it weren't none of our business. I'm just your mother, after all. No reason why I should care, or even notice. We had ham and beans for supper last night. The cornbread was burnt on the bottom, but I'm not used to the oven just yet."
Estelle handed me a plastic bottle. "Better put some of this on your nose," she said. "The girls are still moaning about their sunburns. Larry Joe got so fed up with hearing it that he told them to stay in their cabin. He sez the bleachers will be finished this afternoon. I reckon we ought to go up there and have a look."
"I can't hardly wait," said Ruby Bee, still refusing to look at me.
I slathered my nose with sunblock, then wiped my hand on my shirttail and poked her shoulder. "You want to hear about it?"
"None of my concern."
Estelle scooted closer. "Well, I do. What on earth led Anthony Robarts to kill those two women? Where are the rest of them? I walked up that way yesterday, and it was clear they'd all left. It seemed real sad, the bunks all stripped and the garden already losing to the weeds. All I found was a diaper lying in the weeds and a notebook with drawings of the lodge and the lake. Whoever drew them might consider another career."
I made a tactical decision to ignore my mother for the time being. "Corporal Robarts did what he thought was the only way to protect his mother."
"His mother?" gasped Estelle. "Mrs. Jim Bob kept telling us about the charity and the sick little children and how they could frolic on the softball field and -- "
"I know," I said, "but Willetta Robarts was the one who convinced volunteers at the community service agencies to screen potential recruits. She wanted women who felt trapped in unbearable situations and had nowhere else to turn. They were told they could have a safe place to live and the chance to earn enough money so they could move on. They never knew she owned the company store, in a manner of speaking, or that she was Deborah. She wears a wig, you know. She could transform herself in a matter of seconds from an aristocrat to ... something more sinister. It took me a long time to realize she kept going into the police department to help Duluth escape so I'd assume he was guilty. It's hard to know if she ordered the killings or if Anthony did it to protect her reputation. The county prosecutor was leaning both ways."
"Why did she make the others go and shave their heads?" asked Estelle, always a cosmetologist at heart.
"So they'd be too intimidated to leave," I said, wishing Ruby Bee would at least acknowledge that she was listening. "That's how you create a subservient class, by isolating them and making them feel conspicuous. She would have fit well into the landed gentry two hundred years ago."
Estelle sucked on her lip for a moment. "I reckon I'd stay in my house if I looked like that. Ruby Bee, do you recollect when Elsie McMay gave herself a home permanent and burned her hair so bad she looked like she'd been caught in a forest fire? She pretended she was staying with her third cousin over in Jonesboro, but she had to come out for groceries and -- "
"Just let Arly get on with it, will you?" said Ruby Bee, more than a little bit peevish.
Estelle patted her beehive as if to assure herself that it was still intact in all its towering grandeur. "So where are they now?"
"In Farberville." I sighed as I remembered the paperwork and interminable sessions with Harve, the county prosecutor, and a pair of FBI agents who'd been brought in because of the interstate factor. "The women and the children are being taken care of until it's sorted out. Anthony Robarts is in jail. His mother's hired a high-priced lawyer from Little Rock, but even he can't explain the fingerprints on the inside of Ester's trunk -- or on the piece of pipe found alongside the body."
Ruby Bee reeled in her line, then cast the bobber back into the water. "Can't see why he left her in the car like that," she said, pretending she was talking to herself. "Myself, I would have driven the car to the end of a logging road and buried the body."
"Is that from personal experience?" I waited for her to smile, and when she didn't so much as twitch her lips, added, "Corporal Robarts bungled it. When he put Ester's body in the trunk, he didn't realize she had her car key in her hand. I suppose he thought he could deal with the situation later."
"Did the tabloids get the story?" asked Estelle.
I nodded. "Harve's not real happy to have his face on racks by the checkout lines in every grocery store across the country, but that's the price of fame, I suppose. He was elbowing aside the county prosecutor on the courthouse steps and smirking like a possum in a persimmon tree."
"Glad to hear someone's having a right good time," muttered Ruby Bee, yanking up her line to ascertain that some fragment of a decidedly deceased worm still dangled on the hook.
It wasn't tantalizing, but I wasn't a crappie or a perch. For once, I wasn't even hungry, having pigged out on a cherry limeade and tamales from the Dairee Dee-Lishus on the drive back from Maggody. "I talked to Duluth, by the way. He said he'll be done by Saturday, presuming the plumber sobers up. The health department inspectors will be by on Monday. One of them is his second cousin, so there shouldn't be any problem."
Estelle glanced at her compatriot. "You saying Ruby Bee can reopen next week?"
"If she wants to," I said.
"And what if I don't?" growled the proprietor of Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill, flicking her rod to plop the bobber back into the lake.
"You can probably get a decent deal if you sell the bar and the motel. It won't pay for a condo on a beach in Florida, but you can buy a nice double-wide and park it in the Pot O' Gold. There's a vacant spot now that Norella's trailer is parked behind her mother's house. Duluth and his boys are living there for the time being."
Estelle swallowed. "Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill can't be sold to some stranger who'll turn it into a used-car lot."
"The guy who owns the Dew Drop Inn was by the other day," I said. "He's thinking about starting a franchise. He says he'll call his next establishment the Dew Drop Inn Too."
Ruby Bee flinched. "Well, he can just think about something else, like poking himself in the eye. I ain't selling to anyone, including the likes of him!"
"Whatever," I said as I gazed across the lake. "Looks like we've got nice weather for the next few days."
"Maybe," said Ruby Bee. "At least we got pork chops and fried okra for supper."
"And applesauce," added Estelle. "Lots and lots of applesauce."
"Now listen here, you schemin' pissant bastard," Jim Bob sputtered, repeating himself for the umpteenth time and getting redder each time. "If you don't give me that videotape, I'm gonna wring your scrawny neck and bury your body in a flowerbed."
Hammet didn't bother to look away from the television set. "Won't get you the tape, though. I hid it real good, but someplace where it'll get found afore too long if it stays there. I reckon folks around here are gonna have theirselves a real belly laugh when they watch it. You was squealing like a stuck pig when you got all tangled in your shorts trying to scramble out of bed to git away from-what was their names? Sam and Tim? Sumpthin' like that. It's a good thing you chased 'em all the way out to the driveway. Otherwise, I couldn't have taken the tape."
Jim Bob's eyes narrowed. "And done what with it?"
"I don't likely recollect, but iff'n you bring me another sandwich and a glass of milk, I'll stew on it. And I was thinkin' about doughnuts with powdered sugar for dessert. Long as you're goin' to the store, get some grape sodas and a box of vanilla sandwich cookies. I've had a hankerin' all day."
"I might could tie a concrete block to your foot and throw you in Boone Creek."
"And have some 'splaining to do when ever'body gets back to town," Hammet said coolly as he switched channels to some dumbass show with men running around in short pants, whacking at a ball.
Jim Bob tried again. "Ain't you scared of going to prison, you pint-sized sumbitch?"
"Not near as scared as you are of what's gonna happen when your prissy wife gets home. You gonna stand there and goggle like a bullfrog all afternoon?"